The Rosie Project
By Graeme Simsion
Simon & Schuster
295 pages, $24
The Explanation For Everything
By Lauren Grodstein
338 pages, $24.95
By Karen Brady
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Science consorts with the inexplicable and is completely undone in two zany yet moving new novels with numerous parallels.
Both “The Rosie Project” by Graeme Simsion and “The Explanation for Everything” by Lauren Grodstein feature youngish professors at small, little-known colleges (one in Australia, one in New Jersey), each with an older – and decidedly inappropriate – mentor.
Both books give respectful yet hilarious treatment to sacred subjects. Plus (and what are the odds here?) both professors – one a biologist, one a geneticist – are engaged in lab work that involves plying rodents with alcohol.
How could Simsion and Grodstein miss? Easily. But they don’t. Each book is immediately endearing, a touching not-so-little romp through a certain kind of academia on the part of two earnest souls, each coming to terms with the hand life has dealt him – thus far.
“The Rosie Project,” in addition, is a debut novel that has created a great stir in the publishing world – coming out in more than 30 countries and being optioned by Sony Pictures for the big screen. Last year, it brought Simsion, an Australian, the Victorian Premier’s Unfinished Manuscript Award, and there is already talk of a sequel.
Professor Don Tillman is at the heart of all this fuss – Simsion’s marvelously precise protagonist, a savant who may very well have an Asperger’s disorder. Believing himself lacking in emotion and “socially inept,” Don (who allots himself 94 minutes each week to clean his bathroom, and who misreads almost every social signal sent his way) is nonetheless engaged in what he calls “the Wife Project.”
This, sensibly, entails finding a woman compatible with Don’s eccentricities – via an online multiple-choice questionnaire that Don has “pruned to sixteen double-sided pages.” (A sample question: “Do you eat kidneys? Correct answer is (c) occasionally.” A concession: “… it was unreasonable to require that my potential partner share my lack of subtlety.”)
Don runs the questionnaire by his friends Gene and Claudia – Gene a professor of psychology; Claudia a clinical psychologist, the two married to one another and the parents of a boy and a girl although Gene “has a project to have sex with women of as many nationalities as possible.”
A madcap situation – but Gene is eager to help Don with his quest, and Claudia is kind, full of guidance and suggestions. And then there is a mix-up: Gene sends a graduate student to Don with a question. Don thinks this striking young creature is a Gene-picked candidate for the Wife Project. Her name is Rosie and, although she isn’t at all what Don has in mind for a wife, he invites Rosie, who is also a barmaid, to dinner.
Now, politically incorrect as all of this is, I don’t recall ever laughing harder, or longer, at a book. Simsion gives us a very-real-feeling person in Don – less a counterculture hero than an Everyman, despite his departures from the norm. And Rosie, the glorious spike-haired barmaid/student!! Well, she is up to the task – not of becoming a wife, per se, but of becoming a genuine friend.
It is Rosie who, in another twist of fate, presents geneticist Don with a challenge he can’t resist. It seems Rosie’s mother died without disclosing Rosie’s paternity but, at the same time, hinting that she, Rosie’s mother, may have had a dalliance with a member of her medical school class. It is thus that, in this age of DNA identification, “The Rosie Project” is born.
More hilarity ensues as the pair sets about stealthily procuring DNA from, as Don puts it, “many 54-year-olds.” When Don finds, during his time with Rosie, that “instinct had … replaced logic,” there is no doubt where this is all heading, and in time, the plot, such as it is, grows old – but not Simsion’s spot-on humor. I defy you not to smile when Daphne, an elderly woman to whom Don was kind, leaves him “a small sum” in her will specifying, “I would be pleased if you used it for something irrational.”
“The Explanation for Everything,” on the other hand, never grows old, nor does Grodstein’s well-placed wit, her vehicle for bringing us Andrew Waite, a sad, thoughtful father and academic whose complex personal situation is about to become a whole lot more complicated.
We meet Andy, an early widower bringing up two young daughters, as he prepares to teach his biennial course – listed by Exton Reed College as “Special Topics in Evolutionary Biology: Ethics and Debate” but colloquially known as “There Is No God.”
For Andy is “an avowed and devoted atheist,” a disciple of Princeton great Henry “Hank” Rosenblum (whose latest contribution to the thinking world is a book titled “Religion’s Dangerous Lie”). Andy studied and worked for years under Hank, his (often outrageous) friend and mentor, and Andy’s professional thoughts rarely stray from Hank, “one of the premier American evolutionary biologists of his generation” (and, as we will learn, perhaps a “murderer” as well).
In this vein, it delights Andy to know that he, Andy, is considered a “campus provocateur” for his course on evolution – but he is unprepared when Lionel Shell, a former student “in a Rick Santorum sweater-vest,” signs up for the course a second time for the sole purpose of writing “a response paper to the course that will change the university’s position on letting you teach atheism every other year.”
Add to this Melissa Potter, a student “wearing a cross” who asks Andy to oversee her independent study on intelligent design: She does not “want to inquire into the nature of God.” She already has that down. She wants to study “the origin of life” as she sees it in the Bible. And she is asking Andy, as an atheist, to help her with this work as she knows he will “challenge” her.
And there is more: Andy is counting on the success of his own study – to prove that “genetics of alcoholism lead to immutable behavior patterns” – to ensure him tenure. But the mice he is using to bolster his premise aren’t cooperating: They’re changing patterns whenever they please – which apparently is often:
“He clocked more hours with these mice than he did with almost anyone else in the world…yet even they remained essentially mysterious to him…”
The study is dear to Andy’s heart as his beloved wife “Lou” was killed by a drunk driver named Oliver McGee, a still-young man who sits in prison for the fact. Andy not only chose alcoholism for his study because of McGee but he also writes to McGee (never sending the letters) and attends every parole hearing for McGee, vowing to keep him incarcerated. To top this, Andy’s best friend is a woman named Sheila who struggles with alcohol herself.
This too-perfect storm will implode of course – bringing us atheism, belief, evolution, creationism, intrigue and alcoholism in large, changing doses, each involving a different human being and a panoply of emotion (meaning all bets are off).
This is a cogent book with real staying power, a game of musical chairs – with no one in the same seat at the end.
Karen Brady is a former Buffalo News columnist.