Book Review: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Special Topics in Calamity Physics
by Marisha Pessl
This is my favorite of the year, and will probably make the list of of my favorite books ever. I’m not sure I can do it justice in reviewing it, but I hope I can do a bit better than Publishers Weekly, whom I’m going to quote entirely just to get the plot synopsis out of the way:

Pessl’s stunning debut is an elaborate construction modeled after the syllabus of a college literature course — 36 chapters are named after everything from Othello to Paradise Lost to The Big Sleep — that culminates with a final exam. It comes as no surprise, then, that teen narrator Blue Van Meer, the daughter of an itinerant academic, has an impressive vocabulary and a knack for esoteric citation that makes Salinger’s Seymour Glass look like a dunce. Following the mysterious death of her butterfly-obsessed mother, Blue and her father, Gareth, embark, in another nod to Nabokov, on a tour of picturesque college towns, never staying anyplace longer than a semester. This doesn’t bode well for Blue’s social life, but when the Van Meers settle in Stockton, N.C., for the entirety of Blue’s senior year, she befriends—sort of—a group of eccentric geniuses (referred to by their classmates as the Bluebloods) and their ringleader, film studies teacher Hannah Schneider. As Blue becomes enmeshed with Hannah and the Bluebloods, the novel becomes a murder mystery so intricately plotted that, after absorbing the late-chapter revelations, readers will be tempted to start again at the beginning in order to watch the tiny clues fall into place. Like its intriguing main characters, this novel is many things at once—it’s a campy, knowing take on the themes that made The Secret History and Prep such massive bestsellers, a wry sendup of most of the Western canon and, most importantly, a sincere and uniquely twisted look at love, coming of age and identity.

I’m surprised that PW could write such a lengthy paragraph about the novel that didn’t do more than show glimpses of the main character, Blue Van Meer, who is the heart and soul of the book. It is tempting to focus on Pessl’s structure and literary allusions — but the cleverness of those devices is secondary to her skill at constructing the character of Blue, who is almost prescient in her intelligence and at the same time as naive as any teenager, without a trace of contradiction between the two. In fact, the “knack for esoteric citation” is Blue’s wry comic punctation throughout the narrative, and does as much for character development as it does for illuminating the plot.
And then there’s Blue’s father, Gareth, who plays almost as large a role in the book as Blue. We see him completely through his daughter’s eyes, and this is clearly a girl who loves and is completely influenced by her father, although she’s not blind to his foibles and follies, and not shy about asserting her own agenda, even though he’s used to getting his way. Gareth Van Meer is a scholar and an intellectual elitist, and though he’s obviously highly intelligent, he’s not quite as smart as he thinks he is, which is charming with a bit of schadenfreudey-whimsy thrown in.
The murder mystery itself is neatly wrapped up at the end of the novel — but there are enough threads to weave a sequel into the story, and I certainly hope that happens; I hope we haven’t heard the last of Blue Van Meer.

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