Summary and book reviews of Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

by Marisha Pessl

Special Topics in Calamity Physics
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2006, 528 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2007, 528 pages

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Book Summary

A darkly hilarious coming-of-age novel and a richly plotted suspense tale told through the distinctive voice of its heroine, Blue van Meer.

This mesmerizing debut, uncannily uniting the trials of a postmodern upbringing with a murder mystery, heralds the arrival of a vibrant new voice in literary fiction

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 knowledge—and 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 guide—or misguide—her.

Structured around a syllabus for a Great Works of Literature class and containing ironic visual aids (drawn by the author), Pessl's debut novel is complex yet compelling, erudite yet accessible. It combines the suspense of Hitchcock, the self-parody of Dave Eggers, and the storytelling gifts of Donna Tartt with a dazzling intelligence and wit entirely Pessl's own.

Excerpt
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Dad picked up women the way certain wool pants can’t help but pick up lint. For years I had a nickname for them, though I feel a little guilty using it now: June Bugs (see “Figeater Beetle,” Ordinary Insects, Vol. 24).

There was Mona Letrovski, the actress from Chicago with wide-set eyes and dark hair on her arms who liked to shout, “Gareth, you’re a fool,” with her back to him, Dad’s cue to run over to her, turn her around and see the Look of Bitter Longing on her face. Only Dad never turned her around to see the Bitter Longing. Instead, he stared at her back as if it was an abstract painting. Then he went into the kitchen for a glass of bourbon. There was Connie Madison Parker, whose perfume hung in the air like a battered piñata. There was Zula Pierce of Okush, New Mexico, a black woman who was taller than he was, so whenever Dad kissed her she had to bend down as if peeking ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Blue describes herself as a “Jane Goodall,” an observer not a main actor. She is quiet, in thrall to her father, bookish, and solitary. What did you think of her when we first meet her? How does she change over the course of the novel? At the end, what new characteristics has she acquired?

  2. Her father, Gareth van Meer, is her opposite: charming and callous, verbose and secretive. He dazzles women, is adored by his students, and is completely committed to his daughter. Yet there are clues that all is not right with Gareth. Go back to some passages in the book where Blue hints that he is hiding something, such as when she describes her frightening apprehension, at the age of eleven, that he is a “terrifying, red-faced ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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".   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review Members Only (553 words).

Media Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle - Ann Cummins

I am willing to read a 300-hundred page novel where the driving force is an original voice with a fresh perspective, and Blue Van Meer's is such a voice. But for a murder mystery of this length, I want a little more thrill in the story. Special Topics in Calamity Physics could have used some judicious editing, some attention to scene choreography, and a little more glue to hold the plot together.

The Sunday Times - Joan Smith

Pessl can write, but she lacks both judgment and a decent editor, who would have slashed this windy novel to half or two-thirds of its inflated length. As it stands, it is an exhausting read, arch, whimsical and too pleased with its own effects.

Boston.com - Caroline Leavitt

Still, despite the sprightliness of the idea, it's all a little precious, a little too clever for its own good ... While Special Topics in Calamity Physics seems prepackaged for bestsellerdom, I'm much more curious about what this talented writer will do next.

Vogue

Witty and exuberant, it is part coming-of-age story, part road-trip adventure, part idiosyncratic Great Books survey, with dashes of romantic comedy and murder mystery thrown in ... Such pyrotechnics place the author alongside young, eclectic talents like Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Zadie Smith."

The New York Times

The most flashily erudite first novel since Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated ... A whirling, glittering, multifaceted marvel, delivered in an irrepressibly smart and flamboyant new voice ... Q: Is SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS required reading for devotees of inventive new fiction? A: Yes."

Booklist

Intriguingly structured ... the novel is generating a great deal of buzz that will excite the curiosity of readers who enjoy postmodern excesses and indulgences of this sort.

Kirkus Reviews

The writing is clever, the text rich with subtle literary allusion ... Sharp, snappy fun for the literary-minded.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Pessl's stunning debut..., a sincere and uniquely twisted look at love, coming of age and identity.

Financial Times - Melissa McClements

Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a startling take on the thriller - reading like a Dawson's Creek script interspersed with various Oxford Companions to literature and selected extracts from the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It takes a while to get going, and Blue’s incessant annotation is at times overwrought, but the gripping conclusion is well worth pressing on for.

The Guardian Peter Dempsey

Published in the US to reviews of saucer-eyed admiration and already in its fifth printing there, Special Topics in Calamity Physics carries a heavy burden of expectation, which it only partly fulfils.

Reader Reviews

Scythe

Tour de Force
Just finished this book and so enjoyed it. Great characters, a compelling plot, and for the most part, beautifully written. I found myself quickly drawn in to Blue's life and her struggles to fit in and to become her own person. I did develop an ...   Read More

sandy

When is her next booK?
Wow I have not been so excited by a book in a long time. I rarely read a book twice, but this one I would. Thank you for a great gift of tale!

Al Jr

Tries too hard to impress...
While reading this novel, I consistently received and maintained the idea that Pessl wrote this novel with the sole intention of causing critics to gush. The endless "citations" (most of which are fraudulent), and the titling of the ...   Read More

angie

Average
Well, actually the only thing in the book that is a little compensating is its ending.It ends with a lingering feeling of mystery and secrets unrevealed! Generally it was a boring book ,with too many footnotes and references, as if the writer was ...   Read More

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In person Marisha is described as straightforward and unpretentious". A close friend writes that "she's not this person who speaks above peoples' heads". Her husband describes her as "perhaps the most driven person, the most goal-orientated person, when it came to her novel, that I have ever met."

When asked why she ...

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