Fiction is one of the ultimate tools of empathy. Through it we find compassion and understanding, as we live through situations we might otherwise never have encountered. My last two blog posts have made it quite obvious how important fiction is to me personally. As such I always have some reservations about how autism will be represented in fiction, because I know how important it is. When I came across The Rosie Project, a romantic comedy starring an autistic man, I avoided it (though I did look at the blurb of it and its sequels furtively, as if expecting some embarrassing thing to jump out at me). But ever since the first time I was scared of a book I have not been able to live with my own cowardice for long. I borrowed the audiobook.
Short review: I did not dislike it. I was pleasantly surprised.
Don, the hero of The Rosie Project, has not been diagnosed with Asperger’s, but the first chapter makes it very apparent that he has autistic traits. He is 39 and a genetics professor in Melbourne, Australia. Inspired by psychological research methodologies, he devises a questionnaire to find his perfect wife. It is through this project that he meets Rosie, a barmaid. Rosie does not meet the criteria of the questionnaire but she and Don get on well, particularly when she tells him she is looking for her biological father, who, her mother says, was one of the men in her graduating class. With access to DNA testing equipment, Don is just the person to help Rosie find her answer.
So the fun begins. The book is very tightly plotted; no scene feels too long, too short, under- or over-written, or out of place. It has a lot of farcical comedy based on wacky situations getting out of control, and so I don’t recommend it if you get second-hand embarrassment easily. I personally did have to pause the book a couple of times.
Don does represent more than a few stereotypes of autism. He is a white male scientist with a very ritualised existence, similarly to Sheldon Cooper and Christopher Boone. He also has a genius level memory and seemingly poor awareness of others’ thoughts and feelings, particularly those of women. I would completely understand any autistic reader who found this frustrating and aggravating. However, I think we are in the early stages of our canon and for a lot of people even this stereotype is a type of person they have not tried to empathise with before, and as I will detail below, I think there are several positive aspects to the story. My argument would be that we just need even more autistic representation. I hope to create some myself one day.
The novel also does touch on some aspects of autistic experience that I had not seen in fiction before. As I mentioned above, Don has not been diagnosed with Asperger’s. I’m not familiar with the Australian context, but if it’s like the UK, it’s not unusual for someone of his age to be undiagnosed. However, he does briefly mention that he has been diagnosed with several mental illnesses, and his time in psychiatric care was traumatic. It would be inappropriate for a comedy novel to dwell on this, but I know that experiences like Don’s have happened and keep happening to autistic people, especially as mental health services continue to be poorly funded and there is little recognition of our needs in the healthcare context. It was satisfying to see this addressed in a novel, and hopefully gave some readers pause for thought.
Another part that I found moving was where Don appears to have broken his relationship with someone important to him. His psychologist friend Claudia says something like “Don’t worry, someone else will come along”, and Don thinks something along the lines of “That’s how it goes for normal people, not people like me”. Whether it’s lack of luck or lack of skill, love has never been something that just “comes along” for me, either. I feel the loss of each chance very sharply, as I know I can’t tell when or if it will happen again.
I could make many more points about this novel, but I am already at 800 words, so I will just add one more: I liked that Don and Rosie had fun together. As I mentioned in my first blog post, I did not feel at ease with the first people I dated. It was probably more about me than them, but that doesn’t make the point less important. When you have grown up with a sense that you don’t belong, and you are used to being ill at ease pretty much all the time, this can make you put your instincts aside and push yourself to accept something you shouldn’t. At the same time, it is often necessary to get out of your comfort zone and try new things, because things often do not find you. It’s complicated and impossible to get right. But the whole point of these messy enterprises called love, sex and relationships is that they must feel safe, and ultimately like they suit the person you really are, and not who you think you should be.
 My Mother is Weird, by Rachna Gilmore. Something about the illustrations made me afraid even to look at it. I was seven at the time. Probably an important bit of context.
 Strictly speaking, Christopher is too young to be a professional scientist, but he’s very much on his way to being one. I have a certain affection for Curious Incident, as the author did work with autistic kids local to me as part of his research, and, in contrast to The Big Bang Theory, the book doesn’t pretend not to be about autism. [CORRECTION: So I was pretty misinformed here. Curious Incident has never been strictly about autism, only interpreted that way by the public. That is really disappointing. However I still think it opened a massive national conversation about autism in the UK, and the theatre adaptation is particularly moving and well-made. I am convinced that the reason The Big Bang Theory writers do not call Sheldon’s neurotype by its name is because then they would have to admit they were making fun of autistic people, and not just a vague “people we find awkward and annoying”.