From the book
jacket: Special Topics in
Calamity Physics is a darkly
hilarious coming-of-age novel and a
richly plotted suspense tale told
through the distinctive voice of its
heroine, Blue van Meer. After a
childhood moving from one academic
outpost to another with her father (a
man prone to aphorisms and meteoric
affairs), Blue is clever, deadpan, and
possessed of a vast lexicon of literary,
political, philosophical, and scientific
knowledgeand is quite the cineaste to
boot. In her final year of high school
at the elite (and unusual) St. Gallway
School in Stockton, North Carolina, Blue
falls in with a charismatic group of
friends and their captivating teacher,
Hannah Schneider. But when the drowning
of one of Hannah's friends and the
shocking death of Hannah herself lead to
a confluence of mysteries, Blue is left
to make sense of it all with only her
gimlet-eyed instincts and cultural
references to guideor misguideher.
Comment: As you probably know, Pessl structured Special Topics in Calamity Physics, her first novel, around the syllabus of a Great Works of Literature class - the sort of course that a prestigious 4-year college might offer. With that in mind I found myself musing frequently during the first few hundred pages whether she might have been better off basing her story on something a little shorter and less erudite, an English literature unit at a 2-year-college, perhaps - because it didn't seem possible that she could maintain the conceit of her novel through a full 500+ pages. However, she not only did but she actually got better as she hit her stride in the second half (fortunately so, as otherwise I might not have stayed the course).
The novelty of the endless literary annotations, a few genuine but mostly fake, wore thin early on. What had more staying power were Pessl's entertaining turns of phrase, such as the police officer who saturated himself in Paul Revere-like cologne which "rode far ahead of him, alerting all of his impending arrival".
Reviews of Special Topics in Calamity Physics have been mixed - USA reviews (where it was first published) are generally positive; reviews from Britain (where it was published a few months later) are generally more muted. At the end of the day, Special Topics in Calamity Physics is worth reading if only to admire the audacity of a first time novelist creating something new from such a well-trod theme (the coming-of-age in a prep school novel in the form of a memoir) and, on the whole, pulling it off with style.
This review was originally published in September 2006, and has been updated for the April 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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