“Special Topics in Calamity Physics” by Marisha Pessl

Special Topics in Calamity Physics was one of the “it” books of 2006, with lots of media attention paid to the young, attractive author and her 500+ page mystery.

Blue Van Meer is a preternaturally precocious high schooler who rarely stays in the same school for several months, much less an entire year at a time. Her father is a much-in-demand adjunct professor in world history and political science, so they crisscross the country as he teaches at this and that small-town school. For her senior year, he says he wants to give her some stability and they go to a small North Carolina town, home of a prestigious private school where Blue can put the finishing touches on her application to Harvard. She is soon singled out by the charismatic Hannah, a film teacher at the school, who introduces her to the Blue Bloods, a coterie of privileged yet messed up kids who reluctantly take Blue into their midst. It starts in the future, where we know a key point right away:

Dad always said a person must have a magnificent reason for writing out his or her Life Story and expecting anyone to read it….

It began with simple sleeplessness. It had been almost a year since I’d found Hannah dead, and I thought I’d managed to erase all traces of that night within myself, much in the way Henry Higgins with his relentless elocution exercises had scrubbed away Eliza’s Cockney accent.

I was wrong.

Death, mystery, and deception abound. This kept me reading till the end to find out exactly how all the pieces fit together. It was a fun read, reminding me a lot of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. As literary fiction, though, I found it had aspirations to grandeur it didn’t quite reach. The chapters had titles of famous works, yet the events in them rarely had more than a surface connection to the book of the title. The Woman in White was about a mysterious woman, not even in white, with no allusions to any of the many other distinct aspects of the Wilkie Collins mystery.

Blue’s habit of citing articles and books in reference to her own comments wore on me as the book went on. I got that Blue and her father were intelligent and intellectual; the parenthetical device wasn’t necessary. Another thing that nagged was the time period of the book. Ostensibly set in the 00’s, none of the characters had cell phones or communicated by email. The reverse anachronism made it often hard to suspend disbelief. It also made me read to the very end to find out what happened; I’d say 80 to 90% of the details happened in the last 10% of the book; it felt very end heavy and author ex machina.

In spite of my concerns, though, I still enjoyed it and read it quickly despite its 500+ pages. It was smart, often funny, and engaging. I recommend it with reservations, but nonetheless do recommend it.

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