— This review originally appeared in The Weekend Australian
In most love stories the interest is less who the couple eventually will be – be it Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester or Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, we know early on who the love match is – but the path to their romantic entwinement.
Though the obstacles and infuriations spur the narrative along, it’s the inevitability of the union that offers the enjoyment in such texts.
Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project and Lesley Jorgensen’s Cat & Fiddle, two Australian debut novels that won literary prizes in unpublished manuscript form, are very different love stories that provide this pleasure in surprisingly intersecting ways.
What makes these novels interesting on their journey to happily-ever-afters is the peculiar nature of their struggles: one due to a protagonist with highly functioning Asperger’s, the other due to the customs of an ancient culture butting against the temptations of the modern world.
Cat & Fiddle, which won the CAL Scribe Fiction Prize in 2011, is a sort of East-meets-West Pride and Prejudice. It’s an elaborate story of two British households, the Muslim Bangladeshi Choudhury family and the upper-class English Bournes, connected by the restoration of an ancient gothic abbey.
The story centres on Dr Choudhury and his wife Mrs Begum and their attempts to marry off their three children, Tariq, Rohimun and Shunduri, whose romantic lives are in various states of turmoil. But it is the wreckage caused by elder daughter Rohimun, a talented and successful artist who has brought ruin on herself and shame on her family for being photographed in the company of a gora – white, non-Muslim – society boy, that is the catalyst for the tale.
Adelaide-based Jorgensen, who married into a Muslim Anglo-Bangladeshi family while living in Britain, writes beautifully of the clash of cultures: Mrs Begum slicing mangoes with her dhaa blade and placing them on Royal Albert country roses china, or her puzzlement at washing powder advertisements boasting of making “whites whiter” when her line is shimmering with saris of emerald and gold.
Well aware of the tradition she is writing in, Jorgensen nods playfully to the Austen classic: “Darcy! Knightley! Come on now,” one character calls to his dogs. There are indeed deliberate echoes of Pride and Prejudice in the bookish Dr Choudhury (Mr Bennet), scheming Mrs Begum (Mrs Bennet), attractive but silly Shunduri (Lydia) and the gifted but passionate Rohimun (Elizabeth). Although Jorgensen updates Austen with yaaahs and innits, this is a tale far more allied in style and theme to a traditional 19th-century novel than the linguistic invention of, for example, Zadie Smith.
The one flat note is the attempt to draw parallels between the Choudhurys and the trials of the royal family, especially when we already have the contrasting presence of the upper-class Bournes. But Cat & Fiddle is a satisfying and engaging read, as elaborately long and extravagantly embellished as one of Mrs Begum’s saris.
Whether confined by the customs of religion that tug and pull uncomfortably in the modern world, or the cloistering of academe, a theme in both these novels is the limitations of tradition. Rohimun is locked away inside a room in the ruined abbey, where she waits, wraith-like, for her parents to pass judgment on her fate. Don Tillman, the hero of The Rosie Project, is trapped too: a man restricted by the rigidity of his schedule, walled up inside his own (ivory) tower.
Don, as he notes of himself, is “39 years old, tall, fit and intelligent, with a relatively high status and above-average income as an associate professor. Logically, I should be attractive to a wide range of women. In the animal kingdom, I would succeed in reproducing.” But Don, who has just two friends, has never had success in romantic, or indeed platonic, relationships and has given up all hope of finding a partner.
Though a far more modern story, Simsion’s novel, which won the 2012 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, might suitably have taken its name from the original title of Pride and Prejudice, First Impressions. This is a quirky, wonderfully comic tale of a Melbourne genetics professor who appears to have undiagnosed Asperger’s. The novel is essentially a case study of Don, and its charm and comedy come from his constant faux pas and baffled interactions with the world.
He may be Don, but Draper he is not. He communicates like a computer program with feelings. Deciding to apply the scientific techniques of academe to his search for a mate, Don creates an extensive questionnaire “to filter out the time wasters, the disorganised, the ice-cream discriminators” – a document so minutely focused and quixotic it would rule out almost every woman but a robot – and so begins The Wife Project.
Enter Rosie, a PhD candidate at the university, who is, in Don’s words, “the world’s most incompatible woman”: late, vegetarian, disorganised, mathematically incompetent, smoker, can’t cook. Rosie is searching for her biological father and Don, offering to help, becomes increasingly entangled with and attracted to a woman who he knows would fail almost every aspect of his meticulous test. Through a series of high jinks, a man who believes that “emotions can cause major problems” must come to terms with love and desire as a tangled and uncontrollable thing that obeys neither logic nor statistical analysis.
Originally conceived as a screenplay, The Rosie Project has a wonderfully visual quality, and Simsion also nods to the tradition in which he is writing: films including Annie Hall, As Good as It Gets and even Bridget Jones’s Diary make an appearance. But the charm of this story is Simsion’s affectionate depiction of his strange, flawed, infuriating, logical and always amusing protagonist.
There’s something to be said for an entertaining read with a happy ending, and these two books provide such a pleasure in divergent ways. The obstacles in both are less pride or prejudice than the realisation that the immovable strictures of religious tradition or logic and peer-reviewed questionnaires are nothing against the pull of romantic feeling.
The Rosie Project
By Graeme Simsion
Text Publishing, 329pp, $29.99
Cat and Fiddle
By Lesley Jorgensen
Scribe Publications, 512pp, $29.99