Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Graeme Simsion revisits prickly Don Tillman in The Rosie Effect

When Don Tillman’s wife Rosie unexpectedly announces, “We’re pregnant!” his brain scrambles into analytical overdrive. But before the protagonist of Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Effect can fully articulate how the statement “We’re pregnant” contradicts basic biology, or how Rosie could be that 0.5 percent failure rate statistic of the their preferred method of birth control, he has the most natural Don reaction: a full-fledged meltdown.


He runs out of their Williamsburg apartment and literally sprints to Queens to seek refuge at a friend’s place. When Rosie finally gets a hold of Don 30 minutes later, she’s not angry or fazed. She’s sympathetic, supportive, and even apologetic, making her the most understanding wife in pop culture whose husband has just abandoned her following a pregnancy reveal. She’s grown accustomed to her husband’s behavior, his charming quirks that make him Don—specifically his undiagnosed, but widely accepted, Asperger syndrome.

It’s also the type of behavior readers expect from Don Tillman, a genetics professor who first wormed his way into the hearts of millions with last year’s international bestseller The Rosie Project. The book catapulted Tillman into nerd icon status on par with Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory and Abed Nadir of Community. And the ultimate geek certification came when Bill Gates announced it was “one of the most enjoyable novels I’ve read in a long time,” calling it both “funny and profound.” Now the book is being turned into a film courtesy of directing duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and The Fault In Our Stars screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber.

The Rosie Project is a quintessential chick-lit romp that chronicles Tillman’s ambitions to find a wife using the unconventional means of spreadsheets and questionnaires. He meets the irreverent psych student Rosie, a red-haired firecracker 10 years his junior with plenty of her own insecurities. They fall in love, break up, make up, and—like the best rom-coms and Greek comedies—it all ends with a wedding.

In this sequel, the Melbourne couple now lives in New York City. Don works as an associate professor at Columbia University, where Rosie is also completing both a master’s and a Ph.D. The book follows Don as he prepares for fatherhood, a comedy of errors that lands him in handcuffs as well as the consequent Good Fathers Program (meetings for violent fathers), and it involves some good old-fashioned impersonation and deceit, the risk of deportation, and even more of Don’s antics, which nearly drive Rosie back to Australia. While Don’s cluelessness in the first novel is relatively harmless, it has actual consequences in The Rosie Effect.


A slew of characters surround Don to fill the void of his deteriorating marriage—best friend Gene, who is the voice of reason; a team of psychologists examining the effect of same-sex marriages on parenthood, whom Don dubs B1, B2 and B3; a ragtag bunch of cronies that Don gets drunk with and seeks brotherly advice from—but none of these friendships are as interesting as his relationship with Rosie. The second half of the book, in which Rosie is demoted to playing the stock pregnant woman, drags along as his behavior progresses from cringeworthy to tiresome.

Written from Don’s perspective, The Rosie Effect differs from the average novel marketed toward female readers in two ways: The narrative is told from the male’s viewpoint, offering a glimpse into the opposite sex’s psyche on such typical rom-com fodder as pregnancy, sex, and marriage. (Of the third, Don says, “I had learned that, in marriage, reason frequently had to take second place to harmony.” The second, and perhaps more notable, difference is that the prose transplants the reader into the logical, matter-of-fact mindset of someone with Asperger’s.


As a case in point, take Don’s view of sex: “Sex was absolutely not allowed to be scheduled, at least not by explicit discussion, but I had become familiar with the sequence of events likely to precipitate it: a blueberry muffin from Blue Sky Bakery, a triple shot of espresso from Otha’s, removal of my shirt, and my impersonation of Gregory Peck in the role of Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. I had learned not to do all four in the same sequence on every occasion, as my intention would then be obvious.”

Despite these two distinctions, as the book trails on, it becomes clichéd in other ways. For example, just as Don and Rosie’s relationship seems unsalvageable, there’s a last-ditch effort at the airport, a heartfelt apology (“I love you, Rosie… I should have stated it more often, but I was unaware of the requirement”), and once again, everything ends neat and tidy. But this time, with a baby. The rom-com genre is known for these breakneck-speed resolutions and, sure, it’s the ending that will make Hollywood execs happy, but it feels phony for a book that has spent 300-plus pages slowly constructing a realistic narrative.


And the character of Don himself, while equipped with a unique voice, has become just another example of pop culture’s latest go-to caricature of the quirky guy with Asperger’s (whether TV series creators and authors want to fully diagnose those characters are not). Don joins a legion of male characters that riff on the awkward, swoon-worthy male-centric trope popularized by Woody Allen and, later, Seth Cohen, but pushes it farther down the Autism spectrum. There’s the aforementioned Sheldon and Abed; there’s Richard Hendriks of HBO’s tech satire Silicon Valley, whose awkwardness is the butt of endless jokes throughout the debut season; there’s Dr. Spencer Reid from Criminal Minds. Their inability to cope with social situations somehow becoming shorthand for endearing klutz. This sentiment goes for Don, too, with one Goodreads commenter even going so far as to proclaim Don is “Sheldon in love.”

According to Simsion himself, the bulk of his research into Asperger’s came from studying physics and working in the IT world for 30 years. And despite Don’s cookie-cutter take on the syndrome—difficulties socializing, higher than average intellectual abilities, restricted repetitive behaviors—Simsion maintains it was a deliberate choice not to formally diagnose Don to prevent readers from focusing on the syndrome rather than his character as a whole.


Meanwhile it’s accepted among fans and even the other characters in the book that his eccentricities can be chalked up to the syndrome. Don is refreshingly aware of his idiosyncrasies. Early on in the book, he reflects:

“I accepted that I was wired differently from most people, or, more precisely, that my wiring was towards one end of a spectrum of different human configurations. My innate logical skills were significantly greater than my interpersonal skills. Without people like me, we would not have penicillin or computers.”


Interestingly, the term only comes up once in the novel. During a dinner party a woman insults Don by saying he has Asperger’s. He thinks to himself, “I had also, at various times, been labeled schizophrenic, bipolar, an OCD sufferer and a typical Gemini. Although I did not consider Asperger’s syndrome a negative, I did not need another label.”

Ironically, it’s the label that most easily sums him up. Don’s condition isn’t merely a sidenote that manifests itself from time to time for optimum comedic value. It’s his identity, no matter how contrived.


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