Review: The Rosie Project

I read this on a day trip to my old school in Somerset. Turns out that a four-hour round trip train journey with delays is the perfect occasion for a novel like this.

Our Protagonist is Don Tillman, a genetics professor who is essentially Sheldon Cooper from the earlier series of The Big Bang Theory: dedicated to routine and highly logical, he’s constantly looking for the most efficient way to do things. That includes cooking and eating the same seven meals every week; timing his lectures to last exactly an hour; scheduling his time right down to the minute.

(A note: although author Graeme Simsion claims in a Q&A at the end of the book that he didn’t intend Don to be neurodivergent, a lot of audiences have read him that way.)

Once upon a time, Don decides that he is in want of a wife. Because he struggles with conventional dating, he decides instead to embark on the Wife Project: he creates a questionnaire designed to identify the woman who is perfect for him.

What I wanted out of The Rosie Project was adorableness, if possibly slightly conservative and/or consolatory. What I got was kind of…sexist? The questionnaire, of course, does not go according to plan, and Don’s main romantic interest actually turns out to be a bartender called Rosie who fulfils none of Don’s criteria for the ideal wife. She’s horrified when she finds out about the questionnaire, pointing out that any woman who filled it in would be participating in her own objectification. But this never actually gets addressed? The main obstacle to Don and Rosie’s relationship isn’t that Don fails to see women as fully human, it’s that Don isn’t good at reading subtle social signals. But not only is the questionnaire itself pretty icky (there was a sample at the back of the library copy of the book that was billed as Fun Engagement with the Text! but which I actually found super judgemental and uncomfortable), the last quarter of the novel is laden with the kind of “fight for her!” advice that amounts to harassment in the real world. I can’t believe we’re still saying this in 2019, but: if a woman tells her male romantic interest to leave her alone, THAT IS WHAT SHE MEANS. Not “I need further convincing, please come to my place of work and make a dramatic romantic gesture”. That the novel doesn’t recognise this as fundamentally creepy behaviour is a problem for me.

Something I wondered about when I finished The Rosie Project: who is it for? It’s being marketed as light, fluffy romance, but with a male protagonist, which (as a non-romance reader) seems unusual but also interesting! But the sexist undertones of the text make this gender inversion profoundly problematic: this is a novel being marketed to women in particular that says “this is an acceptable way for men to treat you. It is, in fact, adorable! and romantic! (and therefore you should put up with it)”. Like Don’s questionnaire, it asks us to participate in our own objectification.

Which brings me back to a sunny train platform in Somerset. “How’s the book?” asks a fellow awaiter of delayed trains. (People on train stations in Somerset actually talk to each other – always faintly terrifying to this city-dweller.) “It’s OK for a train journey,” I replied. Because it is. It’s undemanding in its recycling of every rom-com cliché going (Don even gets a makeover). It repeats the kind of misogyny that appears everywhere in popular culture. It’s not like I think Graeme Simsion is a raging sexist; I think he’s a commercial writer who doesn’t think in those terms? So The Rosie Project isn’t exactly a terrible book, just a lazy and mediocre one. It’s basically a big ol’ “meh” in novel form.

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