Who is Don Tillman?
That’s the question I’ve been asking myself since reading Graeme Simsion’s best-selling novel, The Rosie Project and its sequel: The Rosie Effect.
Both books were written in the first person through the voice of Don Tillman, a quirky scientist who developed a questionnaire to find a wife. This voice is perfectly maintained throughout, giving the book a strong autobiographical feel as though there is no author. Indeed, Simsion has climbed so deeply inside Don Tillman’s skin, that I had to ask…Is he Don Tillman? They’re seemingly one and the same.
For those of you who haven’t read the books, Don Tillman, reminds me of Sheldon from the hit TV series Big Bang Theory. Yet, although they’re birds of a feather, Don is very much his own man. Well, he would be his own man if I wasn’t questioning how much of the author went into the supposed character. I also have a tough time separating Sheldon the character from actor Jim Parsons. They also seem so seamlessly the same.
However, while I’ve never had the opportunity to meet Jim Parsons in real life, last Thursday night I had dinner with Graeme Simsion and my antennae were out. Was he Don Tillman? Or, as his creator, was he an exceptionally good impersonator?
So who is Don Tillman?
Don Tillman is an Associate-Professor of Genetics. He has an obsession with detail, is highly scheduled and when it comes to reading social situations, he’s absolutely clueless. The crux of the book is that he’s looking for a wife. Having failed dismally at conventional dating, he’s now taking a purely logical approach and has devised a questionnaire to screen for potential wife candidates. He hypothesizes that the questionnaire will speed the process up by quickly eliminating unsuitable prospects and ultimately yielding the perfect wife.
The longer answer about Don’s identity is much more complex.
No doubt, Simsion has been asked many times if he’s Don Tillman, and came prepared. The answer is no. Apparently, the character of Don was inspired by a jogging buddy and the book, including the infamous yellow jacket incident, is based on true incidents. Yet, while Simsion denied that he is Don, he does admit to having some geek-like traits and concludes:
“There’s a bit of Don in all of us.”
Indeed, that’s the books’ appeal. That we’re not laughing at Don, but with him. We’ve been in his shoes at least once in our lifetimes, and know that dreadful, crushing all-consuming embarrassment when we make a mistake and all the dreadful, ensuing complications.
However, there are also those of us who have a bit more Don than most. Perhaps, that’s us. Or, perhaps it’s someone we love. Don is our Dad, a work colleague, our husband, a friend or even all of the above. Not that they necessarily recognize themselves in print. More than likely, they’ve also laughed through the book and missed seeing themselves in the mirror.
Apparently, that even includes Bill Gates. At the dinner, Simsion mentioned that Melinda Gates had given Bill the book:
“Melinda picked up this novel earlier this year, and she loved it so much that she kept stopping to read passages out loud to me. I started it myself at 11 p.m. one Saturday and stayed up with it until 3 the next morning. Anyone who occasionally gets overly logical will identify with the hero, a genetics professor with Asperger’s Syndrome who goes looking for a wife. (Melinda thought I would appreciate the parts where he’s a little too obsessed with optimizing his schedule. She was right.) It’s an extraordinarily clever, funny, and moving book about being comfortable with who you are and what you’re good at. I’m sending copies to several friends and hope to re-read it later this year. This is one of the most profound novels I’ve read in a long time.”
This, of course, brings The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect back to me.
It is certainly no secret that I absolutely love these books and have almost been flagging strangers down in the street recommending they read it. With all the millions and millions of books in this world and given that my house is bursting at the seams with books, what is it about these books? Why are they so special?
Personally, I related to the chaotic, seemingly disorganized character of Rosie in The Rosie Project. Rosie is spontaneous and chaotic like myself and I pictured her as a bit of a wild character with black lipstick, locks of wild red curly hair which she swirled into a bun and wearing vintage clothing. I have also know quite a few Don’s in my time, and taken them clothes shopping and given them dating advice.
However, as I was swept along by the story, I didn’t twig that I’d only ever seen Rosie through Don’s eyes. However, in The Rosie Effect, there are just a couple of lines of dialogue between the members of her study group, which revealed that Rosie is more like Don than I’d thought. That it’s more than likely that Rosie is on the Autism Spectrum as well.
Before I head off, I just wanted to emphasize that neither of these books judge or ridicule people on the Autism Spectrum. If anything, they lift the lid on the Autistic mind and help us better understand some its quirks and some of the ways it beats to a different drum. There’s perhaps an implicit hope that through this greater understanding, that we could become more inclusive as a community. Less judgemental. Indeed, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a more diverse, eclectic and inclusive community where there is no prescription to belong? You simply come as you are and you’re in.
I will write more about what I learned about Graeme Simsion the man and the writer in my next post. As you can see it was a very productive evening and I even left buying another set of books to give away to some treasured friends.
Have you read the books? If so, I’d love to hear your reflections!
PS I was researching dyslexia tonight and came across this spelling of Asberger’s which made me laugh: “My son has mild arseburgers”. Someone commented: “arseburgers” – a minced rump steak?
 Bill Gates, http://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/The-Rosie-Project, July 12, 2014.