Last year when I read The Rosie Project, it blew me away. (My review here.) 5 stars, funniest book I'd read in ages, I bought copies for friends and family, I sang its praises to all who would listen. So I had high hopes for The Rosie Effect, but as is so often the case with sequels, I should have quit while I was ahead.
The Rosie Project was a joy to read. I devoured it in an afternoon. The Rosie Effect was the opposite: I had to keep taking breaks and thinking about other things because the reading experience was literally traumatizing. This is not a fun read. It's an engaging read, because I enjoyed Rosie and Don so much from the previous book that I pulled for them and wanted to know what would happen, but it's painful, frustrating, vicariously embarrassing, anxiety-provoking, anger-making, and sad.
And worst of all? It isn't funny.
For those not familiar with the Rosie phenomenon, Don Tillman is a genetics professor whose Asperger's Syndrome (on the autism spectrum) is obvious to everyone but him. Rosie is his medical student wife. She's working on her MD and her PhD at the same time, and as if she were not busy enough with her thesis and her clinical studies, she's now pregnant.
In Rosie Project, Rosie was able to use her admirable frankness and open communication to cut through and compensate for Don's social obliviousness. She was willing to be totally blunt and straight-forward in communicating her needs and expectations, because Don does not appreciate subtlety or nuance. In Rosie Effect, she has completely lost that gift, or perhaps she's just stretched too thin and lacks patience. At any rate, Rosie and Don are no longer communicating. His social cluelessness gets him into seriously hot water -- a near arrest at a playground has him facing mandatory mental health evaluation and potential deportation -- but he doesn't tell Rosie about it (or about the snowballing consequences of that initial secret) for fear of causing her stress, which he worries might hurt the baby. Rosie assumes (perhaps because of Don's secretiveness re: the playground incident, or perhaps because of his unorthodox reaction to the news that she was pregnant) that he's not interested in or equipped for parenthood, and she starts preparing to go it alone.
See? The entire premise is not funny. In The Rosie Project, it was amusing to watch Don's clueless bumbling and wonder if he'd pull it together enough to make a relationship work. Here, the stakes were much higher, and it's not at all amusing to watch an imperiled marriage get dashed upon the rocks, especially where there's a baby involved. It was heartbreaking and anxiety-provoking to read about Don working so hard to prepare himself for fatherhood, with the best of intentions but due to his disorder making the wrong decision at every turn, and Rosie somehow completely blind to both his efforts and his struggles.
It was doubly frustrating because the Rosie I knew and loved from the first book would never have let this happen. She would never have gotten pregnant without discussing it with Don ahead of time. She would never have expected him to show up at her doctor's appointments without explicitly telling him she wanted him there. She would have told him what she needed and expected at every step in the process, rather than pulling away and letting the chasm between them grow. Her ability to communicate clearly was the key to their relationship--we always knew that things wouldn't be easy for them because Don is so different, but at the end of The Rosie Project the reader could root for them and have faith in their Happy Ever After because Rosie alone knew how to speak to Don on his level. She got him in a way no one else could. And, here, suddenly she doesn't anymore.
There's no recovery from that. Even though The Rosie Effect pulls off another Happy Ever After, I no longer believe in Rosie and Don, because I no longer believe in Rosie.
The Rosie Problem is exacerbated by the fact that in this second book, Rosie's actions and motivations are not explained until the very end. At that point, finally, the reader can understand and to a certain extent relate to her, but for 80% of the book she was distant and withdrawn and unsympathetic, and not at all the character I remembered so fondly. The explanation, when it came, was enough to make the plot make sense but not enough to restore my shaken faith in Rosie as a character.
In The Rosie Project, Don's failure to pick up on social cues and follow social conventions often got him into trouble, to great comedic effect. In the sequel, Don's obliviousness continues to land him in hot water, but these incidents are not funny any more. In fact, most of them are downright terrifying: Don nearly assaults a neighbor and chases him down the street, resulting in Don and Rosie being evicted. Don nearly assaults a cop who quite reasonably suspects Don of being a child molester, resulting in Don being mandated into mental health treatment and nearly being deported. Don's unorthodox behavior makes an federal marshal reasonably suspect Don of being a terrorist, resulting in their flight turning around in mid-air. Don may be too clueless to consider how his behavior impacts the people around him, but the reader isn't, and these incidents just absolutely are not funny.
So, my advice: if you haven't already, read The Rosie Project. It's wonderful -- funny, heartwarming, original, thought-provoking, sweet, entertaining. It's entirely delightful.
Then stop. Do not read this book. Just Stop. I wish Graeme Simsion had.