I stumbled across the fact that this third (and final?) installment in the Rosie series had been published and, having enjoyed the first two – The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect – and was looking for an enjoyable and quick Bank Holiday weekend read… and this fitted the bill perfectly.
Don Tillman remains our narrator and his voice – precise, methodical and controlled – was familiar voice to fall back into reading. There is something atypical about Tillman, and has been throughout the novels, and despite never explicitly identifying as being on the autistic spectrum, there have always been many facets of his life and approach which have shown characteristics: the standardised meal system, the scheduled micro-management of his life and love life, the literalness, the aversion to touch, the instinctive estimation of age and BMI of every character he meets. The plot of the novel is summarised by him in chapter two as five problems which require solving: curing cancer; the Genetics Lecture Outrage; the Dave Disaster; the Rosie Crucifixion; and the Hudson Adjustment Problem.
In this novel, that big question – whether Tillman is on the autistic spectrum – is front and centre. Don wrestles with his own professional problems following a misguided practical lecture in race whilst simultaneously trying to manage the social problems his ten-year-old son Hudson faces at school, having moved from New York to Melbourne. As a result, both he and Hudson are pressured into seeking an autism diagnosis for their behaviours.
And there my interest grew parallel to my worries.
Having a daughter who has a severe speech and language delay and whose paediatricians have pushed for a diagnosis of autism – and having an older daughter with autism – and being a teacher of a significant number of autistic children, I had something of a vested interest. There were so many pitfalls Simsion could have fallen into: the depiction of the autistic spectrum could have been inaccurate, clumsy or offensive; it could have demonised the condition and damned those who are autistic; it could have offered a mawkish ‘cure’. It skirted around all of those, which would have earned it a one-star review, and some of the characters did approach autism in those ways. But the novel did something different with the resolution. Something heart-lifting and, in my personal view, honest. And brave.
One chapter of particular interest recounts Don and Rosie’s attending an autism awareness meeting where Margot, the mother of a daughter with autism, and Liz, an autistic woman, speak and come into conflict. Over the issue of language amongst other things: whether the person first language of “a person with autism” was acceptable or not. And this is a live debate. It must be: it was on Radio 4! I did like Liz’s contribution to that debate:
Black T-shirt was introduced as Liz, and she immediately identified herself as both lesbian and autistic.
‘I’m not a person with autism any more than I’m a person with lesbianism. I’m lesbian. I’m autistic. When I get a cold, I have a cold; I’m a person with a cold and I want to get rid of it. Medical help appreciated. But being autistic and lesbian—that’s who I am, and I’m not interested in anyone trying to cure me of who I am.’
Parallels did keep cropping up between autism and sexuality through the book too. The logic, I guess, is that both aspects are about accepting non-traditional and atypical aspects of your identity.
This is not, however, an autism awareness pamphlet. As a novel, it lives and dies with its characters and the relationships between them, and there are some lovely developments: Blanche, Hudson’s albino friend, and her mum Allannah were sweet and touching characters, although her father was a little one-dimensional. Dave the refrigeration engineer from New York was great if underused. A number of minor characters felt very side-lined … including the eponymous Rosie who was an original and great character in the original The Rosie Project had become fairly anodyne and anonymous. Maybe my impression of her in the first book was exaggerated. And it is such a male-dominated book: Don obviously takes centre stage but the lead players are his father and Phil, his father in law, his male friends Dave and George. Female characters like Eugenie – who played a more significant role in the narrative than many of the male characters like – were referenced but barely seen. I mean, look at Don’s own list of people who contributed to Hudson Adjustment Project :
‘Eugenie, Carl, Phil and I, and George and Dave—and Claudia and Gene—worked to assist him in developing the skills to…’
‘I was part of that too.’
‘Of course,’ I said.
Rosie’s poor little “I was part of that too”!
So yeah, the plot was contrived in places – particularly the resolution to the Genetics Lecture Outrage, perhaps – and a little cliched but ultimately an ensemble of likeable and pleasant characters who have grown together over three novels.
It was, what I wanted it to be: a pleasant and enjoyable Bank Holiday read!
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Publisher: Michael Joseph
Date: 4th April 2019