Saturday, 2 May 2015

GREAT READS FOR MAY, 2015

The Rosie Project, and The Rosie Effect, by Graeme Simsion

True to form, I read these books long after everyone else did;  once again I ask myself:  ‘where have I been all my life?!’
Anyway. I finally obeyed the exhortations of everyone at our library – and word-of-mouth recommendations are the very best kind – to catch up with the millions who made both books runaway bestsellers, and I am so pleased to say that all the praise was neither extravagant nor misguided:  Don Tillman, professor of Genetics at a prestigious Melbourne university is an unforgettable protagonist, an unlikely hero who applies relentless, scientific logic to every situation – until he meets Rosie Jarman, a woman who is his exact opposite.
            Don’s life is entirely under control.  He has worked very hard at making it so, because that is the only way that he can function efficiently:  his day is ruthlessly compartmentalised to the extent of allowing an exact amount of time for sleeping, (7hours, 13 seconds for optimum function during daytime hours) exercising (jogging, biking, taekwondo and karate) a standardised meal routine for every day of the week (thus eliminating indecision when grocery shopping – also on a particular day), and the pleasurable consumption of alcohol – which seems to be the one thing he feels free to indulge in without  regimentation.
            Don accepts that his behaviour is regarded as ‘not average’;  he knows he is ‘wired differently’ as are so many brilliant people who hover somewhere on the autism spectrum, but he has made a life for himself, of a sort, and takes comfort and solace from his little rituals – but … but he is lonely.  He needs a woman’s passion, companionship and love but has no idea how to achieve what even the meanest person enjoys without any apparent effort.  Human relationships are a mystery to him.  Until his colleague and very best friend (his only friend) Gene introduces him to Rosie, a free spirit par excellence who, predictably, is singularly unimpressed with him as a person:  she just wants his help to find her biological father – he is a geneticist after all, so he should have a few ideas how to get her mum’s lover’s DNA.
            Despite the apparent futility of the task, this is the kind of problem that Don’s single-minded logic delights in, and Mr Simsion ensures that Don charms his way into readers’ hearts (and Rosie’s) with a perfect mix of humour, wisdom and great characterisations which continue in the sequel with no loss of pace, comic situations and the myriad ways ordinary people react to Don’s otherness.  
            Don and Rosie marry at the end of Book One and embark on their married life in New York, where Don has accepted a visiting professorship at prestigious Columbia School of Medicine;  Rosie is in the throes of finishing her studies for her medical degree AND Phd (she’s pretty smart, this girl):  life is good, even though Don’s rituals have been either disrupted or dispensed with entirely by the fact of having to live with and defer to another person.  His life is a daily hair-raising adventure of hours without comforting routine;  knife-edge suspense as plans are changed on a whim by the mercurial Rosie – but he loves her:  he is tremulously happy with his new existence, ‘and now has six friends’, more than he has ever had in his whole life.
            Until Rosie announces one day: ‘we’re pregnant.’
            Don’s efforts to make sense of his new role as father of Bud (baby under development) and thoughtful, considerate and caring partner to the expectant mother whose hormones are in an uproar are beautifully recounted by Mr Simsion, who writes so convincingly that even Don’s most outrageous mistakes clearly illustrate his ‘not average’ state of mind.  Don’s six new friends are people we’d love to have as friends ourselves, and I have to say – as I am sure everyone else did who has read these fine books – I’m sorry to have finished them:  it is not every day that one finds the perfect combination of laugh-out-loud humour and wonderfully endearing characters who solve big, life-changing problems by unusual means.  Highly recommended.

Swimming in the Dark, by Paddy Richardson.

The South Island town of Alexandra is a prosperous gateway to some of New Zealand’s most majestic scenery;  it has plenty of tourist traffic to afford its shops lots of sales;  its fruit orchards are famous countrywide, and it is home to flourishing vineyards.  But, like its climate (baking hot in summer and fearfully cold in winter) there are extremes in economic circumstances for its inhabitants, especially for 15 year old Serena Freeman, youngest child of the local ‘good sort’, a woman known for her lack of taste – and sense – when it comes to choosing lovers, especially as many of them are married.  She has made a mess of her life and her five children have suffered for it;  nonetheless Mum does not see that their circumstances are her fault:  life has just been against her, that’s all.
Serena is a bright child, eager to get a good education so that she can leave Alexandra and her failing family – after all, that’s what her elder sister Lynnie did:  she now has a good job in Wellington and an apartment and a boyfriend and, and everything!  Surely these good things could happen to her too? 
She works hard at her education to this end, and is fortunate to have a wonderful teacher who sees her potential and gives her every encouragement – until someone she thought was a pillar of society, a person everyone could go to in times of trouble – proves that there is no-one, no-one she can trust to provide the friendship, let alone honourable behaviour that she needs:  Serena, still a child, is confronted with insoluble adult problems.
Until she is given temporary shelter by her teacher, Ilse Klein, a German woman who emigrated with her parents from East Germany twenty years before.  Ilse’s father has died and she and her mother Gerda live quietly, unobtrusively – not exactly recluses, but not encouraging of the usual backslapping kiwi mateship.  Her father managed that better than she;  notwithstanding, Ilse and her mother are happy to have the peace of ‘one day exactly like the one before it’, for they have known the terrible attention of the State Police, the Stasi, and the evil that was perpetrated upon them and so many others in the name of ‘safeguarding the welfare and interests of all citizens of the GDR.’
Ms Richardson has constructed a nail-biting thriller on many levels:  Serena, who has temporary safety with Ilse and Gerda is still not out of the woods;  more danger lurks, and Linnie has arrived in Alexandra to search for her sister (after a reluctant summons from mum, who is not as worried by Serena’s absence as she should be), complicating the Klein’s efforts to keep Serena hidden.  It would be a shame to reveal more of the plot (no spoilers here!), suffice it to say that Ms Richardson’s writing is so fine that she can convince her readers utterly of the justice of the homicidal intent of a woman who will kill – and enjoy it – to protect her loved ones.

My only criticism of this mighty little story is that, just when Serena is at her most vulnerable (my nails were in a state!) Ms Richardson suddenly switches the action to a flashback to Gerda’s life of twenty years before in Leipzig – beautifully, evocatively told and vital for the reader to understand her as a character – but did it have to be right then?  It seemed like ages before we returned to Serena and current danger.  Important as it was, Gerda’s story felt out of sequence.  Having said that, I don’t know where else Ms Richardson could have inserted it, so I should just zip the lip and recommend ‘Swimming in the Dark’ as a top-notch New Zealand thriller.  Woo hoo!  Kiwis rule! 

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