Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Book Reviews: The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect

Early last year, I heard about Graeme Simsion's The Rosie Project and the numerous rave reviews it got when it first hit store shelves in 2013. Talk was at a fever pitch, the film rights were purchased and a second book was announced. Once the original was available on paperback, it jumped to the top of my to-be-read list. Here's my take on both Rosie books.

The Rosie Project (2013)
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Edition: Paperback (295 pages)

For those of us on the autism spectrum, there are a lot of challenges in life. Some are nonverbal, while others have milder symptoms and have more difficulty in the social arena. In the case of Don Tillman, the book's protagonist, he has the latter issue. As a geneticist in Australia, Don is content with his rigid schedule and routine, except for that one thing that most others have - a companion. In an attempt to find the perfect wife, he creates a questionnaire and dubs it "The Wife Project." A colleague introduces him to Rosie, a woman who is the antithesis to Don, including smoking and drinking (two automatic disqualifications on his questionnaire). As he uses his genetics skills to help her track the father she never knew, an attraction begins to develop.

As expected, the autism community has been split over this book. While the book never explicitly states Don has Asperger's or autism, it is essentially assumed he has it. Some have criticized it for stereotyping autism, particularly Asperger's Syndrome or playing it for laughs. Others have said it doesn't show that people with autism have anguish over being able to connect with people. In some respects, these are valid criticisms. The book plays to comedy a tad much and the character's lack of frustration or anguish over being able to find his soulmate doesn't quite feel right. Autism is not a one-size-fits-all condition. I have friends who are higher and lower on the spectrum than where I'm at and we express behaviors in different ways. Don has some behaviors that are emblematic of some people I know on the spectrum, while others would be appalled by being compared to him.

There were situations Don gets himself into that reminded me of scenarios I've been in or others I know that are also on the spectrum. Some of those moments were very humorous, while others brought back painful memories because they were reminiscent to a bad social situation I've had or someone else has had. Both Don and Rosie are well-developed and I found myself rooting for them to get together in the end, despite the rom-com type of ending.

I blazed through this book in a few sittings and found it very enjoyable. Rating: 4 stars.

The Rosie Effect (2014)
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Edition: Kindle (304 pages)

Disclosure: I received an advanced review copy via S&S and NetGalley.

Whatever trepidation or concerns I had during the first book were validated during the second book. Conversely, whatever goodwill I had toward it was completely sapped too.

Rosie and Don are settled into an apartment in New York until they are surprised by news that Rosie is pregnant. Don then tries to juggle half a dozen items in his life, all while Rosie is pregnant and wants to be with her husband. Don's best friend Gene, who I didn't much care for in the original novel, unfortunately plays a role here too. His mind tends to be in the bedroom all the time and without the counterbalance of his open relationship partner Claudia, like in the original, I found him even more unlikable as the story went on.

I found Don getting himself into situations that should have never happened. The moment when I finally said "Enough" was when Don gets apprehended by police for watching and observing children at a playground as a way of understanding children. As someone with high-functioning autism, I know it is a priority to know what is and what is not legal. The idea of watching children in a way that would make people suspect we were pedophiles would never cross my mind, nor the minds of many of my fellow Aspies or others I know that have autism. As a reporter, I've covered autism seminars that help teach children the law. This scene in the book is supposed to be humorous, but it simply and utterly was not funny at all. It came across as demeaning.

The charming characters I liked in the first book were nowhere to be found. Don seemed to take a giant step backward in his development from the original, Gene was the same and Rosie wasn't around as much as I would have hoped. The plot seemed to try and force Don into crazy situations, whereas in the original, it is much less forced and felt like a more natural plot and flow.

In an attempt to give the book every possible chance, I set it down for a week, trying not to think about the possible ramifications that it would have on pop culture. Early on in my autism experience, everyone I met assumed autism equaled "Rain Man." I'm concerned a similar experience is ahead with the pending 'Rosie' film adaptation, but I wanted to give the book a chance to dig itself out of the proverbial hole. I resumed reading it a week later, only to be aggravated again by the plot contrivances and characterizations.

Unfortunately, I have to give this book a 1-star rating. The charm of the original was completely missing, the plot uneven with contrivances galore and scenarios that were uncomfortably demeaning to read. I appreciate the hard work of authors, editors and page designers to create these lovely books we as readers enjoy so much, so I feel terrible in giving 1-stars. But, on a subject as deeply personal as autism, it's hard to give material like this a seal of approval.

The Rosie Project is being made into a movie, thanks to Sony Pictures. According to industry blog Deadline, Phil Miller and Chris Lord (21 Jump Street, 22 Jump Street, The Lego Movie) are in talks to direct and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (The Fault in Our Stars, 500 Days of Summer) are drafting a script.

Have you read either of Simsion's books? Do you agree with its portrayal of autism and Asperger's?

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