Putting the fun back into dys­func­tional

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - An­gela Meyer

The Rosie Ef­fect By Graeme Sim­sion Text Pub­lish­ing, 415pp, $29.99 READ­ING The Rosie Ef­fect is like catch­ing up with an old friend, one who makes you af­fec­tion­ately tsk and shake your head. That friend is Pro­fes­sor Don Till­man, to whom we were first in­tro­duced in Graeme Sim­sion’s in­ter­na­tional best­seller The Rosie Project.

Don has a unique view of the world — ra­tio­nal but not nec­es­sar­ily mea­sured — and he gets into unique sit­u­a­tions be­cause of it. Here, as in the first book, the au­thor re­sists putting a name to Don’s dif­fer­ence.

To give un­fa­mil­iar read­ers an idea: Don val­ues logic and ra­tio­nal­ity and has trou­ble with so­cial cues. He is ap­pre­hen­sive about spon­tane­ity, and emo­tional in­for­ma­tion is dif­fi­cult for him to process. He dis­ap­proves of be­ing com­pared with some­one such as Dustin Hoff­man’s Rain Man, who is ‘‘inar­tic­u­late, de­pen­dent and un­em­ploy­able’’. In­stead, Don is high func­tion­ing but not nec­es­sar­ily mod­est: ‘‘ A so­ci­ety of Don Till­mans,’’ he says, ‘‘would be ef­fi­cient, safe and pleas­ant for all of us.’’

Don is now mar­ried to Rosie Jar­man and liv­ing in New York. Don is a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at Columbia and Rosie is com­plet­ing a med­i­cal PhD. They also work a cou­ple of nights at a cock­tail bar. And then Rosie gets preg­nant.

Don is al­ready try­ing to process the in­for­ma­tion of his friend Gene com­ing to New York. The shock of the baby news is too much for him,

The Rosie Ef­fect re­sult­ing in a melt­down and an in­ci­dent with his neigh­bour, the first of a se­ries of in­ci­dents in the novel that are mostly caused by Don’s in­abil­ity to in­ter­pret emo­tional nu­ance.

As with the first book, th­ese in­ci­dents are hu­mor­ous and cause cring­ing; the reader ob­serves the mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the un­rav­el­ling, and longs to step in as an in­ter­preter. This is en­hanced by the first-per­son point of view: we ex­pe­ri­ence each in­ci­dent through Don’s eyes and can only imag­ine what the other char­ac­ters are think­ing. To add to th­ese mo­ments of mis­un­der­stand­ing, Don has been pre­par­ing for the preg­nancy. After read­ing that high lev­els of cor­ti­sol will be harm­ful to the baby, he be­gins to keep any­thing po­ten­tially stress­ful from Rosie, cre­at­ing a wall of ar­ti­fice be­tween his part­ner and him­self.

Sim­sion’s The Rosie Project started as a screen­play and is be­ing made into a film. The Rosie Ef­fect, too, fol­lows a cin­e­matic plot tra­jec­tory, in­flu­enced by screw­ball com­edy. The reader fol­lows Don on a down­ward spi­ral, with mo­ments of re­lief, and it’s a good bet there’ll be a glow at the end. Savvy con­sumers of popular cul­ture may recog­nise the for­mula, but that’s not to say it doesn’t work. There is gen­uine emo­tional in­tent. Don grap­pling with the idea of a baby and how it will fit into his and Rosie’s lives is re­lat­able on a broad level: try­ing to find some struc­ture when life is chang­ing shape or feels chaotic.

The Rosie books are partly about con­trol. Life events take their course, and it is some­times dif­fi­cult to con­front the idea that we have no con­trol over them. We can re­late to Don’s de­sire to be pre­pared for the birth, to play a part and to un­der­stand. His in­ep­ti­tude makes us laugh, but his fail­ure to recog­nise his part­ner’s needs strikes on a deeper level.

Don rig­or­ously pre­pares for the un­known and un­ex­pected. When Gene sug­gests he prac­tice for fa­ther­hood by ob­serv­ing chil­dren, the reader knows it’s not go­ing to end well. On a do­mes­tic level, Don tries to stay in con­trol through sched­ules, spread­sheets and cal­cu­la­tion. Rosie is not im­pressed by his stan­dard­ised meal sys­tem and his sug­ges­tions re­gard­ing her preg­nancy diet. Don deals with the stress of the sit­u­a­tion — the preg­nancy and his wall of se­crets — by let­ting his self-con­trol slide a lit­tle, mainly through over-con­sump­tion of al­co­hol.

Pro­vid­ing a coun­ter­point to Don is the cast of char­ac­ters around him, who each of­fer ad­vice on his re­la­tion­ship. His friends are flawed, their ad­vice is flawed, and Don’s in­ter­ac­tions with them round out his character. He recog­nises trou­ble in his friends’ lives and tries to help. This dis­tracts him from work­ing on his own re­la­tion­ship but al­lows the reader to see Don is not de­void of em­pa­thy. Rosie is more dis­tant to the reader here than in the first book, but she does come across as be­ing equally ac­count­able re­gard­ing is­sues in the re­la­tion­ship. She is in­tel­li­gent and in­de­pen­dent, and also grap­pling with the idea of change and what will be best for her and the baby. Her stresses and con­cerns play out re­al­is­ti­cally. The Rosie books also sub­tly chal­lenge the idea of ‘‘nor­mal’’ func­tion­al­ity. Don has had his be­hav­iour ex­plained by var­i­ous la­bels and con­di­tions, ‘‘but hu­mans’’, he says, ‘‘con­sis­tently over­recog­nise pat­terns and draw er­ro­neous con­clu­sions based on them’’. Rosie and his friends are all dys­func­tional in their own ways; they have as­pects of their per­son­al­i­ties that dis­rupt their abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate, em­pathise or achieve. Don makes the point: ‘‘Ev­ery­one is as odd as I am when they are alone.’’

The Rosie Ef­fect is a suc­cess­ful se­quel; it will be en­joyed by read­ers who found The Rosie Project en­ter­tain­ing, and to new read­ers search­ing for a sat­is­fy­ing com­edy, with a mem­o­rable main character and plenty of heart.

Au­thor Graeme Sim­sion is back with a suc­cess­ful se­quel in

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