Friday, September 6, 2013

The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

DON Tillman is looking for a wife. He is an intelligent and successful associate professor of genetics, physically very fit, lives in a nice apartment, can cook a great meal and is not too shabby in the looks department. He has everything going on for him as a promising life partner, and has been on many dates. The only problem is he has never been on a second date.

To start off, Don is socially awkward, which is what hinders every first date from progressing on to a second. Secondly, he has a very high expectation for who qualifies as his wife. To name a few criteria: she must not smoke, must not be a drinker, must hold high regard for punctuality (just like him) and must not be a vegetarian.

In his quest to look for the perfect wife, Don decides to embark on the "Wife Project". Since he is a science professor, it seems only natural that his project would constitute a 16-page questionnaire for potential life partners to answer, from which he would be able to pick the best candidate that fits his criteria.

Amidst this project, Rosie Jarman comes into the picture in search of her biological father. She goes to Don for help since he is a genetic expert. Rosie is intelligent and engaging, but she is also exactly everything that Don will not ask for in a future wife.

Don usually does not like to be distracted from carrying out his project, but he decides that it is okay to take up some of his time to help Rosie on her project in finding out the identity of her real father.

We all can make a guess early on that this is a story about two unassuming persons crossing paths and finding love in each other. However, what makes this story endearing is not the outcome, but the journey that Rosie and Don have to go through - in becoming friends, and then partners in crime - before they finally come to acknowledge their feelings for each other.

This makes for a surprisingly remarkable and entertaining read as its narration is by the main character himself. Don is too frank for his own good, inflexible in many ways and also shows symptoms of Asperger's syndrome. You can look forward to all these elements being reflected in his narration.

Do not, however, expect to be reading a literary work of poetic prose, for Don finds no practicality thinking in such a way. There are no impressive words to tell the story. Simsion uses words in a direct and logical way that befits Don's character and personality.

Throughout the story, Don's need to explain the most basic of events and even state the time of events to the exact minute, surprisingly, does not fall flat but adds an engaging dimension in revealing his character.

No doubt, Don is an odd man. What this book does is make you fall in love with the character, despite his disregard for what others think about him and his lack of conscious effort in being a likable person.

You won't be laughing at him for all the social gaffes that he commits. Instead, you will be laughing with him as you look at the world through his lens. By the end of the book, you won't be able to help but like him.

In spite of his many quirks - or more likely, because of them - he is able to overcome the ordeals thrown his way. And of course, Rosie will play a big part in helping him learn many of the big life lessons. Through this journey, we get to see a genuine friendship form before there is pursuit of a romance, which is refreshing to see in the midst of novels that often build romance without the foundation of friendship.

Simsion may not have painted the most accurate representation of a person with Asperger's, but this story makes for an engaging read, and offers an interesting perspective of a person who thinks differently from most of society.

The Rosie Project has just enough substance to make it good for a day of light reading.THE "gamal", or Charlie, as no one calls him, is a reluctant narrator with more than a touch of the Holden Caulfields. His is a book, he tells us, for people who have better things to do than "reading s***". Within a few pages, we discover that Charlie found a body, and the trauma of it sent him into a near-coma for two years, but even before that he was generally accepted to be Ballyronan's village idiot (roughly, what "gamal" means). Writing has been prescribed by his psychologist, Dr Quinn, to process the event that triggered his collapse.

The problem with limited, inexpert narrators such as Charlie is that the novels they create run the risk of not being very good. Christopher in Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time isn't a novelist, but Haddon makes sure he knows how to tell a story. By contrast, Collins allows Charlie almost 300 meandering, digressive pages before he begins his tale. Much of this first part of the novel is spent on a small cast of characters in a tiny Northern Irish village, focusing in particular on the teenage love, longings and musical ambition of Charlie's only friends, Sinead and James.

James is the rich, middle-class Protestant football star who draws the jealous attention of other, less accomplished boys. Sinead is the beautiful, creative daughter of a violent alcoholic, who sings with the voice of an angel. They've been inseparable since primary school, and are the only people in Ballyronan willing to put up with Charlie.

In the last third of the novel, a plot emerges concerning the young couple, the violent results of petty jealousies and the unburied history of the village. Collins doesn't always steer away from melodrama, and the star-crossed lovers motif is so heavy-handed that the conclusion is fairly predictable.

The real pleasure of the novel lies with Charlie, who is both naive and knowing. His narration is shot through with a sly humour that's a delight to read: "I decided there was no point in being a gamal if you're not ignorant." Much of this invites the reader to wonder if Charlie is really as innocent as everyone thinks. "You won't like me," Charlie says. "Mainly because you know I don't care whether you like me or not." Actually, Charlie's witty observations of the people around him, his eccentricities and his wilful defiance make him very likable. Charlie has the discomfiting, not quite plausible voice of a narrator who is trying very hard to persuade his reader of something. We might like him, but we certainly don't trust him.

There's evidence that Charlie has been shaping the narrative according to his own ends all along. He omits scenes that portray Sinead as less than angelic, mentioning but not dramatising the warnings he's had from others - about the effect drinking has on him, about being too obsessed with Sinead. Dr Quinn questions him closely about his relationships with women. Even when Charlie quotes from court transcripts, he interrupts, rephrases and edits in order to show us more clearly what he wants to say.

In the last few pages of the novel, Charlie remarks that perpetrators of crimes, as well as the witnesses and victims of them, can suffer from trauma. The novel ends abruptly shortly afterwards, and this well-judged finish leaves the reader space to reconsider the mass of Charlie's words - the disjointed memories and the non sequiturs - in order to work out just who, in this novel of love, friendship and small-town gossip, is guilty of what. - Guardian News & Media

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