Debut novels can sometimes be such a breath of fresh air, a new voice with a different story to tell. The Rosie Project is just such a book, at times very funny, but also poignant and certainly romantic in a screwball comedy kind of way.
The story is told entirely from the point of view of Don Tillman, a genetics professor. He is tall, fit, and looks a bit like Gregory Peck, but at almost forty he is still seeking a woman to share his life with. The problem is he has Asperger Syndrome - this reveals itself in his excessively ordered life, timetabled to the minute, a difficulty with small-talk, and an overactive brain that can turn out complex mathematical calculations at the drop of a hat.
He has only two friends, Gene, head of the Psychology Department at Don's university, who happens to be a serial womaniser in spite of being married to Don's other friend, Claudia, who coaches Don with relationships and introduces him to her female friends.
When it occurs to Don he can solve the wife problem with a questionnaire as a way to save time and factor out any unsuitable punters (smokers, women who can't do maths, vegetarians, the list goes on), he launches himself into the Wife Project with zeal. Then he meets Rosie. Suddenly hormones intrude and the Wife Project is put on hold. Rosie is very attractive, in spite of being a barmaid, a smoker and a vegetarian.
Rosie wants help with tracing her biological father, a daunting problem as her late mother had something of a reputation. They narrow down a list of candidates to around fifty fellow med students who were all at the same graduation ball. This becomes The Father Project.
What transpires is a series of hilarious scenes as the pair secretly gather samples from each candidate for gene testing. At one point, the two sign up to be bar staff at a conveniently timed med school reunion. Don exceeds all expectations as a newbie cocktail maker and becomes the life and soul of the party. At the faculty ball, Don arrives with a new candidate from the Wife Project who is perfect in every way except for a passion for ballroom dancing with more comic results.
Simsion cleverly choreographs his scenes so that they have enough sensitivity that Don isn't simply the butt of every joke. This is in large part due to Rosie, who has her own demons and is refreshingly honest. She blatantly enjoys their exploits together for with Don there's never a dull moment - when he isn't being infuriatingly difficult. Which is quite often.
And it is much the same for the reader. Don is so interesting, and the characters of Rosie and Gene such a contrast, they make his unusual way of looking at life seem even more unique. Yet he still engages our sympathy by being at times introspective enough to examine the aspects of his character that are challenging to others. When he finally embarks on The Rosie Project, he does so with all the energy of his previous endeavours, and becomes a true hero.