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Special Topics in Calamity Physics Paperback – April 24, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. 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. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
From Bookmarks Magazine
With a murder that occurs in the opening pages and a narrator who joins an elite clique of students, Special Topics bears resemblance to Donna Tartt's 1992 classic, The Secret Historyas the novel's publisher is more than happy to remind us. Critics call this comparison a publicity coup, as the two novels differ greatly in narration, orchestration, and tone. Organized as a "Great Books" course, the novel requires careful attention (and literary knowledge) from its readers, especially when Blue spouts esoteric tidbits. Although most critics were utterly compelled by Marisha Pessl's debut novel, a few thought it mean-spirited and too smart for its own good. "A 500-page headache is as possible as a bracing joyride," notes the New York Times.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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Top customer reviews
Ms. Pessl deserves praise and lots and lots of book sales for this stunning debut novel. Even though multiple clues shone like stars through the entire book, I did not guess the ending (a terrible habit of mine, which I dislike but usually do). In retrospect, I underestimated Ms Pessl's cleverness in weaving a yarn. The voice of her heroine is as brilliant and confused as only a teenager can be - it rings with truth, hope, and self-loathing.
I normally avoid novels with teenagers as protagonists, but I encourage you to give this one a try. I can't remember when I've enjoyed a book more (twice!).
I read Marisha Pessl's other novel, Night Film, and really liked it. Unlike Calamity, Night Film has a mostly linear plot, captured in a fairly concise manner (dragging some in one chapter). Based on Night Film, I'd considered ordering Special Topics in Calamity Physics for some time, and so:
My only real problems with Special Topics: I could have done with half the similes, along with far less of the real or fictive references. This isn't Infinite Jest, after all, and a lot of the parenthetical references don't add much real depth to the characters or situations. While the book is --well-written, funny, and with "clever"-taken-to-over-the-top-- I kept wanting more from the characters, less from the narrator and/or author.
But then again, the main character is 16 or 17, and the book is, in many ways, a coming of age story with dark elements. I did like the book, and it kept me entertained. Readers who get impatient with overly verbose style will be frustrated, I think, but the story is ultimately interesting and does have continuity interspersed throughout (even if I did keep wondering how Raymond Chandler would have written it).
This is a wildly original and imaginative book and much of Pessl's power is due not only to her brilliant writing but also to her outstanding creativity. For example, her paragraph on what happens when, "in severe circumstances . . . you inadvertently witness a person dead" (p. 346 in hb) is precisely such an original thought, as well as so brilliantly written, it does in fact take the breath away.
I read this after reading Rachel Kushner's The Flame Throwers The Flamethrowers: A Novel and think both of these outstanding young woman authors will have many more brilliant works for us. Both feature intrepid (well, sort of) young female protagonists, outstanding descriptive passages (I would give the nod here to Kushner, but just barely) but both to me are weak in staying with the plot and delivering a clear conclusion. Pessl also committed the dirty trick of revealing secrets at the end that she had not given to us before. (Am thinking specifically of p. 493, that Hannah had driven her home after her mother died.)
But while I can pick away at defects--here and in Flame Throwers--I think they gnaw at me because otherwise this book--and Flame Throwers--is simply so outstanding. Ms. Pessl is coming right out of the chute as a first-time novelist but this is a work of a confident, brilliant modern genius, who seems to have us in good hands. Yes, it is long, and yes I got bored with the little clique of in-group arrogant, privileged kids, yes the "mysteries" are not clearly solved, and yes, the ending is a muddle. But I could not stop reading! That is the acid test.
I suspect Ms. Pessl's work will only get stronger and more focused; it cannot become more brilliant although I look forward to her applying that brilliance to other areas of modern life.