August 2006

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

By Marisha Pessl
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Marisha Pessl’s ambitious debut is many things: the story of a complicated father/daughter relationship, a tale of adolescent friendship, a coming-of-age novel and a murder mystery. Told in the skillfully rendered voice of Blue van Meer, it focuses on her senior year at an exclusive high school in Stockton, North Carolina, where she finds herself after a childhood spent following her professor father through a series of short-term academic jobs. At St. Gallway School, an unusual teacher, Hannah Schneider, pulls Blue into a group of friends known as the Bluebloods. When Hannah dies under shocking circumstances, Blue is thrown into the midst of a series of mysteries that will unravel nearly everything she’s come to believe about her life.

The novel is peppered with dark humor and frequent references to other books, both real and invented: “She threw her head back and laughed” (see Shark Death Cry, Birds and Beasts, Barde, 1973, p. 244). Pessl has chosen to structure her book around the syllabus of a great works of literature course instead of a table of contents, the reader will find Core Curriculum (Required Reading) in the front, with each chapter named for a literary work. Shakespeare’s Othello, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Achebe’s Things Fall Apart are a few examples, and I imagine it would be great fun to read each of these in tandem with Pessl’s work. Also included are visual aids, drawn by the author, which nicely complement the text.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics has been the recipient of much well-deserved buzz in the book community. There can be little doubt of Pessl’s talent, and her very clever debut undoubtedly marks the beginning of what is sure to be a long and successful career.

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