Putting the fun back into dysfunctional
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