Marisha Pessl – Special Topics in Calamity Physics: book review

I wasn’t aware of it, but Ms [[Marisha Pessl]] has been a controversial commodity in bookworm circles. She divides opinion as much on the basis of her (very) good looks as much as she does with her writing style. Yes, a little research on the author reveals two tribes: one which believes Pessl to be a literary wunderkind, the other insisting she’s an overhyped author.

Better still, she’s only released one book to date, Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

The Story

Special Topics in Calamity Physics follows a gifted student, Blue van Meer, who travels from town to town with her father, an itinerant academic who raised her since her mother died.

Blue and her father move to a new town and she starts an exclusive school. She’s taken under the wing of a teacher at the school, Hannah Schneider, and is grudgingly accepted by Schneider’s select group of pupils known as The Bluebloods.

The enigmatic and secretive Schneider captures Blue’s imagination and she spends much time speculating on her teacher’s private life. However, Blue’s association with Hannah Schneider is cut short when Schneider is murdered during a camping trip. Blue was the last person to see her alive.

Despite a ruling of suicide on the death, Blue isn’t convinced, and begins to investigate the murder by herself. As she progresses, she discovers more truths than she could ever have imagined about Hannah Schneider and about her own background…

Review

When I think of school-age sleuths, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, or the Hardy Boys, or Nancy Drew come to mind. I don’t think in the canon of teenage detectives, there’s been anyone as bookishly intellectual as Miss Blue van Meer. Every sentence and paragraph of Special Topics is peppered with literary references both real and imaginary. And when Pessl isn’t bombarding her reader with academic and literary quotes, her text is loaded with metaphors.

I found this incredibly hard work to wade through. Other reviewers have expressed their irritation with the constant asides and annotations, and I have to agree. I almost abandoned Special Topics for exactly that reason. However, it is a novel worth persevering with. It’s an unusual story, with a very intricate plot, interesting characters and a vastly unsatisfying ending. But more on that in a minute.

One thing I do want to address is the character of Blue van Meer herself. She’s been described as precocious. Well, only within her own head. In interactions with other characters, Blue can barely manage to string a sentence together. I took her to be seriously introverted, but highly intelligent. However, other people have complained that her breadth of knowledge is simply unrealistic for a teenager. Hmmm.

I can comment on Blue’s father though. Complete arsehole. One thing that Pessl does brilliantly is show us Daddy van Meer through Blue’s rose-tinted glasses. However, at the same time, the reader is building up another image of a puffed-up, self-important man who is critical of literally everything and everyone. Mr van Meer comes across as condescending and remote, and we wonder what the reason for his constant moving around is – is there a darker reason for his itinerant lifestyle? Well, all is revealed by the end of the story.

And without ruining the ending, I must say that I found it deeply unsatisfying. Not because of the series of clues coming together in Blue’s mind, but because ultimately she has no-one to share her intellectual victory with. Now, the closing of the story is rapid considering how slowly the plot moves for the first 75% of the book.

In summary, Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a weighty book and a difficult read, mostly due to the narrative style. However, it’s an unusual story with some genuinely surprising twists – you’ll wonder exactly what led to Blue’s mother’s death but you’ll be surprised when the truth comes out. At the same time, I was both exhausted and relieved to finish the novel, which is probably a sign that it was more hard labour than relaxing read.

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