This time last year I posted about my astonishment at discovering that Graeme Simsion’s first book featuring Aspergers’ sufferer, Don Tillman, The Rosie Project, was not only very funny but also very moving. As I said then, being low level on the Aspergers’ continuum myself, I could readily identify with the struggles that Don had to engage at any real level of understanding with the world around him and was cheering from the rafters when he met and married Rosie, someone not without her own problems but capable of seeing and accommodating the truly generous and loving person Don had the potential to be. Now, in The Rosie Effect, we follow Don and Rosie as they set up home (in the beer cellar of an ageing rock star – but what else would you expect!) and begin to build a life for themselves in New York.
Like most of us with Aspergers, Don doesn’t ‘do’ surprises, which means that when Rosie tells him she is pregnant for a moment his world spins the wrong way on its axis. Learning to live with one person has stretched Don’s tolerance to the extent that, as he informs us, he
sometimes spent longer in the bathroom than was strictly necessary.
Learning to live with two, and one of those a small person whose immediate needs and emotions Don knows he is going to have great difficulty comprehending, is a frightening prospect indeed. And so begins Don’s attempt to understand what a being a long-term father might entail and most immediately what might be expected of him as a father-to-be.
Recognising that he has no awareness whatsoever of the ways in which small children behave, he takes the advice of a friend and sets off to the nearest playground to get in some intensive observation. He is somewhat concerned when the adults accompanying the toddlers move off to a different part of the play area, but undeterred follows along so that he can continue to monitor the behaviour of the child he has chosen to study. You don’t need me to tell you who turns up on the scene ten minutes later.
Fortunately for Don, one of the members of the NYPD with whom he subsequently finds himself engaging has family experience of Aspergers, but even so he is sent for assessment to social services and thus begins a six month attempt to keep this situation from Rosie in order to save her any unnecessary stress, something Don’s intensive research on pregnancy has convinced him is to be avoided at all cost.
However, because the novel is told in the first person, from Don’s point of view, one of the things that the reader may well not immediately realise is that Rosie’s background is giving her problems of her own, most especially in terms of the expectations she has of the way in which a father should relate to his child. And this is an important element within the book because while Don may stumble in his attempts to understand what she requires of him, Rosie herself has difficulty divorcing her own childhood experiences from her current situation. As a result, while the novel is frequently funny on the surface, there is an ever-growing, underlying, level of distress as we realise that the past damage that has been done to these two highly engaging people may be more than they can get over in this particular situation.
In fact the tone of the book in general strikes me as more serious than was the case with The Rosie Project. There is a moment when Lydia, the social worker, accuses Don of having no feelings at all and I wanted to cheer as he finally snapped, stopped being an apologist, and went in to bat for himself.
I was suddenly angry. I wanted to shake not just Lydia but the whole world of people who do not understand the difference between control of emotion and lack of it, and who make a totally illogical connection between inability to read others’ emotions and inability to experience their own. It was ridiculous to think that the pilot who landed the plane safely on the Hudson River loved his wife any less than the passenger who panicked.
If you read and enjoyed The Rosie Project then there is no way that you are not going to enjoy this second instalment. I can imagine, however, that there might be readers who feel let down because the humour is so clearly unlaid by a sense of possible impending doom. Please don’t be. The book is still laugh aloud funny and ultimately full of feel-good factor but, for me, at least, it takes a more realistic view of the difficulties people like Don face as they try to make sense of the world around them and offers a starker view of the loneliness that can come about as a result of no fault of their own.
With thanks to Penguin Books for providing a review copy.