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Special Topics in Calamity Physics

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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.

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.

514 pages, Hardcover

First published August 3, 2006

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About the author

Marisha Pessl

7 books3,933 followers
Marisha Pessl grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, and now lives in New York City. Special Topics in Calamity Physics, her debut novel, was a bestseller in both hardcover and paperback. It won the 2006 John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize (now the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize), and was selected as one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by The New York Times Book Review. Her new novel, Night Film, comes out August 20, 2013.

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5 stars
12,188 (26%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 5,741 reviews
Profile Image for Patrick.
15 reviews44 followers
August 29, 2007
Reviews of “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” and the Bottle of Açaí Juice I Bought for Lunch Cleverly Masked as SAT Test Questions

(a) Special Topics in Calamity Physics
(b) The bottle of açaí juice I bought for lunch
(c) Both a and b
(d) Neither a nor b

(1) __ I had heard good things about it
(2) __ I bought it on a whim
(3) __ If feeling extremely charitable, I might call it “frothy”
(4) __ It seemed sort of good in the beginning, but by the end I was like, “Blaahahhgajh. End, end, end.”
(5) __ Contains metaphors that go down like a junebug having lion sex in a bourbon mood
(6) __ Blue things totally dissed
(7) __ Nabokov rolling in his grave
(8) __ Authoritative blurb raises questions about agenda of blurber
(9) __ Handy pronunciation key for difficult-to-pronounce words like “açaí” or “pessl”
(10) __ “I’m confused about what editors, like, do?”
(11) __ “Maybe I don’t need this many antioxidants and/or self-indulgence.”
(12) __ “Post-BBC Office is anyone allowed to be named Gareth? Really? Really?”

[Pencils down.]

(1) c
(2) c
(3) c
(4) c
(5) c (“A Cadillac-sized smile drove away with his face as if I’d just agreed to pay him ‘in cayash,’ as Dad would say, for a Sedona Beige Metallic Pontiac Grand Prix, fully loaded, two grand over sticker price, driving it off the lot right then and there.”; “Stop the radicals! Join the antioxidant revolution!”)
(6) c (~bloods plotline disappear halfway through; ~berries have 61 fewer ORAC units than açaí)
(7) d (This is against policy at Cimitière de Clarens.)
(8) c (Jonathan Franzen: “A masterpiece of sorts.”; Brunswick Laboratories, MA: ORAC Unit analysis, presented as bar chart)
(9) b (“say ‘ah-sci-ee’”)
(10) a
(11) c
(12) a (No, unless a boy is born that can swim faster than a shark.)

Profile Image for Sarah.
Author 4 books605 followers
October 18, 2007
There’s a special cold black place in my heart for writers under thirty who come out of nowhere with a best-selling much-praised first novel for which they receive huge advances and instant fame. The feeling is called jealousy - deep, shoulda-been-me jealousy that clouds my ability to judge the book itself.

Which brings us to Marisha Pessl and Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Every big review I read of it was glowing and every writer under thirty I talked to said it was a piece of steaming shit (but that I should totally read the novel they’re working on). Turns out that my opinion falls somewhere squarely in the middle.

The parts of the book that failed were the overly-quirky bits and the gimmicky bits. Although the narrator is characterized as smart and scholarly, much of the book is over-written, especially during slow periods. What do I mean by over-written? Describing a pair of boots as being “the shape of Italy” or someone’s face being shaped like “a box of Valentines Day candy.” Say the boots were shaped like boots! Say the woman had a heart-shaped face!

Pessl leans hard on the simile and the metaphor in this book, many times at the expense of simple, straightforward description. By having a complex, intelligent narrator, she’s trying to say, “I’m doing it on purpose!” but it still seems indulgent and silly and, ultimately, keeps us holding her world at arm’s length.

Pessl also struggles with dialogue and realistic characters - often I found myself thinking, that high school student would never say that or that gas station attendant would never say that. All of the characters tended to sound the same and think the same. Sure, if it was a high school student, Pessl would add some “likes” and a reference to J-Lo, but mostly, the person would sound like the voice of the narrator, a voice which I am guessing is the voice of Pessl herself.

But there is some beautiful writing in the book. Entire chapters were - I’ll say it - riveting. Without exception, the riveting chapters were the chapters with a lot of action in them - chapters where it felt like Pessl forgot that she was a writer trying to impress people with her first novel. In these chapters boots were boot-shaped, the language was natural, and the characters got to act like themselves.

These good chapters led me to the conclusion that Pessl’s problem might be discipline. She doesn’t know when to cut out the cute or overly-wrought stuff yet. The Writing Buddha says, kill your children and Pessl, time and again, couldn’t manage to do that. The result is a book filled with things that made the author smile, dalliances, and clever asides that don’t do much except make the book longer. I suspect she also lacked an editor who could kill those children for her.

The plot was ‘aight. It was a pretty basic murder mystery formula and I guessed the end 150 pages before the end happened even though I’m not good at guessing endings. It would have been much better and much more fast-moving if, again, someone - author or editor - had cut it down to a more manageable length.

Where does that leave us? I think Pessl’s got some talent. I think that, for a first novel, this was an achievement. On the other hand, she’s got a ways to go and I hope all of the praise does not set her more firmly in some of her ways. Talent is something you’re born with and being born with talent is easy. Now she’s got some hard work ahead of her - about learning when to hold back and about learning about the human condition outside of her own privileged experiences.
Profile Image for Summer.
298 reviews146 followers
January 21, 2008
Donna Tartt wrote a splendid book called The Secret History which both celebrated and skewered hyper-intellectualism as well as explored the process of interacting with a text and the pleasures of narrative devices. This book follows roughly the same storyline (and, incidentally, the storyline of Daniel Handler's The Basic Eight, down to the "study questions" at the end), except there's absolutely no reason for the precious chapter titles and the annotated references - they have no bearing on the story itself and the general effect is talking with someone who's read a lot of books and hasn't understood a damn one of them.

The irritating dialogue is more reminiscent of chick lit than of anything spoken in real life or in the realm of drama, and the narrator is utterly divorced from the grand intellectual she is supposed to be (again: see The Secret History for an excellent depiction of young scholars). No one has any sort of believable emotional reaction to anything, because no one has any discernable personality traits. Charles, Camilla, and Frances wander over from Tartt's novel to halfheartedly play roles as Charles, Leulah (really!) and Nigel, and then get bored and leave after the story inexplicably becomes a murder mystery. The only possible killer is so obviously telegraphed from early on that all of Blue's supermarket-paperback-mystery "sleuthing" is enragingly tiresome. Also, there's some sort of limp romantic subplot that I guess we're supposed to care about.

So where The Secret History is a brilliant story of the delights and dangers of text and narrative and a wrenching depiction of a classical sort of madnesss, Special Topics in Calamity Physics is the same book shat out and frosted with irritatingly perky metaphors and the worst dialogue I've seen outside of a Harlequin pulper. If you want to read this book and aren't a fan of Donna Tartt, just read The Basic Eight, which is shorter and more entertaining.
Profile Image for Doug Bradshaw.
258 reviews222 followers
January 26, 2008
I've read other reviews and I believe the negative reviews have been written by people who didn't take time to really read the book and follow it all the way through. It would be easy to do. It's not a book you can speed read. (See Ulysses by James Joyce) Sometimes I'll tear through a good book in a couple of days. But there is so much in this book that you have to take your time to really comprehend it and get the good stuff out of it. Marisha's writing technique is totally unique with her hundreds of references to great works of fiction, movie stars, reference books, and other explanations of behavior. I laughed and enjoyed perhaps 60 percent of these and whipped through some of them, not quite following but knowing they'd be worth studying if I were retired and had more time.

Basically, this is a coming of age story. The main character, Blue, has been raised by an intellectual professor who is always on the move dragging her around the country to different jobs with different universities. Her mother died when she was very young, so her only deep relatinship is with her father. And it is a very touching and loving relationship. She becomes his "Mini Me" in many ways. They land for her senior year in a very high end private school and as she is maturing and pulled into a group of "cool" kids by a very interesting and eccentric female teacher, her life starts to change as she tries to become a "cool" teenager, to date and party, to become more than a smart but nerdy professor's perfect little daughter.

As all of this happens, she starts to realize that her father has a few flaws, has been having flings with women and treating them poorly, that he has lied about some of his meetings with other professors and that there may be some kind of secret second life going on.

There is murder, disappearances, first sexual experiences, shyness, embarassing moments of being young and tongue-tied in front of a class, but more than anything, there is the touching love of a young girl for her father, and then how she deals with some unexpected, heart wrenching blows to her life.

Throughout the book, there were dozens and dozens of laugh out loud moments excellent insights into relationships and the little things that make us tick. And even though much of the book was somewhat tongue in cheek, the main themes came through to me loud and clear and when I finally finished up after re-reading the introduction (a must unless you have a photographic memory) I put the book down, sad that I was finished and hoping that there will be some kind of follow up.
Profile Image for jessica.
2,555 reviews35.8k followers
December 14, 2022
just like everyone else who has read ‘the secret history,’ i have been chasing the elusive feeling that book created ever since. and this comes close… ish.

there are a lot of ways to spot that this is a debut novel - primarily the superfluous descriptions, awkward dialogue, and weak ending - but i still found this to be entertaining. not in the all-consuming way of ‘the secret history,’ but in a simple engaging way that makes a good book.

i liked the coming-of-age narrative, the intellectual vibes, and the mystery of it all. i think if a reader commits to the story and takes their time, they will find the story worth while. but i understand that this requires a lot of effort and patience for accepting the story for what it is (which is dense), so it definitely wont be for everyone.

3.5 stars
Profile Image for James.
117 reviews49 followers
June 18, 2008
I really wanted to like this book.

But it’s a train wreck. The literary carnage is so grotesque and horrifying, you can’t help but look, read. (And I promise you, just take my word for it, that metaphor is better than most that Pessl uses in this debut novel of hers.)

Despite what Bayard says, it’s amazing what happens when you stop talking about a text and actually interact with it. I’ll tell you what happens: disappointment. Utter, utter disappointment.

For all intents and purposes, the book doesn’t even start until the second half when a certain major character is found dead by the narrator/protagonist. As readers, we learn about the death with the first line of Chapter #1: “Before I tell you about Hannah Schneider’s death, I’ll tell you about my mother’s.” So essentially, the first half of the book amounts to literary blue balls in which Pessl torments us with bad writing and we writhe in agony praying for release.

It is a common formula to take the wit and wisdom of an adult and transplant it into an adolescent (from Catcher in the Rye to Juno). Pessl brings this trite technique to a new low. Unlike the social relevance and humor of Diablo Cody or the sparse, unfathomable brilliance of Salinger, Pessl just writes with broad strokes and clunky rhetorical devices. Her writing is hyperbolic and extreme. She seems to pride herself on regurgitating endless references and allusions, but I would prefer that instead of describing someone as having “the air of a Chateau Marmont bungalow about her,” she just describe the damn person. Do some real work, Marisha.

And oh how Marisha Pessl loves similes and metaphors. She and Augusten Burroughs should get together and have some kind of simiphor-off. Sample Pessl snippet:

“Charles and his friends looked forward to the hours at her house much in the way New York City’s celery-thin heiresses and beetroot B-picture lotharios looked forward to noserubbing at the Stork Club certain sweaty Saturday nights in 1943 (see Forget About El Morocco: The Xanadu of the New York Elite, the Stork Club, 1929-1965, Riser, 1981).

I have two problems with this kind of writing.
1) I don’t know the way New York City’s celery-thin heiresses and beetroot B-picture lotharios looked forward to noserubbing at the Stork Club certain sweaty Saturday nights in 1943. So this metaphor is completely useless to me. Why can’t Charles and his friends just look forward to the hours at her house?
2) The damn parenthetical references. They’re throughout the entire book. It’s probably supposed to help clear up my first problem with this passage, but it only serves to remove me from the story in two really stupid ways: 1) I stop reading and go look it up, or 2) Since I’m reading a book about a high school senior who can’t possibly know all of the books and references in parentheses, I can only assume this is Marisha Pessl being an annoying smartass with this kind of crappy Authorial Intrusion.

(There’s also “Visual Aids” throughout the book. Drawings by the author. Really annoying. Really stupid. Absolutely unnecessary.)

At one point there is a blubbery Mercedes. If anyone can send me a picture of a “blubbery” Mercedes, Authwhore will award you with a free book that is better than Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

At one point, people say their names “with paint-by-numbers politeness.” This is a problem because paint-by-numbers are not polite. They can be tacky, painstaking, time consuming, fun, childish, whimsical, or any number of other things, but I don’t think that there is anything polite about paint-by-numbers and certainly nothing polite about a writer using such poorly chosen imagery with reckless abandon and intending people read 514 pages of it.

At one point, “he either stared at the kid as if he were a Price is Right rerun, barely blinking, or replied in his molasses accent: ‘Nunna ya goddamn business.’” How do you stare at a Price is Right rerun? Well, Pessl knows that no one knows, so she tells us. You barely blink. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh………shouldn’t she then just have wrote that “he stared barely blinking” instead of “staring as if he were a Price is Right rerun, barely blinking?” Yes. Yes she should have. And that is why this book is categorically, officially, absolutely bad. (If you’re still wondering how exactly you stare at a Price is Right rerun, this book will also leave you wondering how you look at a snag in tights. Riveting stuff, really.)

At one point, “Officer Donnie Lee happened to have saturated himself in Paul Revere-like cologne (it rode far ahead of him, alerting all of his impending arrival).” Which doesn’t even work! Paul Revere rode to warn people not of his own arrival but of the British’s. So I guess that’s why it’s Paul-Revere-like? But isn’t there a better image for something that travels ahead to warn of itself? A fog horn, perhaps? A screeching buzzer on a truck?

At one point, “Hannah was wearing a housedress the color of sandpaper…”
The color of sandpaper??? Pessl, how imprecise can you be!!! Is there a worse writer? What type? What grit? What brand? I’ve seen gray sandpaper, black sandpaper, brown sandpaper, rust sandpaper, beige sandpaper……..

At one point, the narrator/protagonist has a fight with her father and proceeds to throw books at him. I was really hoping to learn that Marisha Pessl had some true postmodern class and sense of humor by having her throw this book at him.

It didn’t happen.

I threw my own copy instead.

For the record, Marisha Pessl is still hot.

Not Sophie Dahl hot. But still hot.
Profile Image for Beverly.
836 reviews315 followers
February 24, 2022
My commute to work is 60 minutes to and from and I listened to this book on those trips, so it took me a while to finish it. There were 17 discs in all. The narrator was quite good and I enjoyed this very much. This is a book about the love of learning as much as it is about anything.

Despite the title, this is not a story about physics. A sixteen year old girl named Blue Van Meer is the main character. She and her father are very close as there are only the two of them in their small family. Blue's mother was killed in a car accident when Blue was five and her father is an orphan. No relatives or friends clutter their lives. They are both committed intellectuals and have fun, as they are flitting from town to town memorizing long poems and passages from famous literature. Gareth dislikes staying for very long anywhere and since he is a distinguished Harvard alum is able to get jobs at various universities for a semester at a time. They move a lot.

Gareth decides Blue will spend her senior year at a prestigious prep school in North Carolina, which has a reputation for getting its students into Harvard. Harvard admittance is his and Blue's main goal in life. Here, Blue makes friends for the first time in her life, sort of. Remember, these are teenagers at a prep school, so they are cruel and barbarous through and through. Eventually, Blue is accepted into their little group, the Bluebloods, primarily because of the intervention of a teacher who is their mentor. Hannah Schneider is beautiful, smart and manipulative. She makes Jean Brodie look like a bunny rabbit.

We find out at the beginning that Hannah has killed herself. Blue tries to unravel this mystery and several others and finds herself more alone than she has ever been.

Profile Image for Maxwell.
1,174 reviews8,405 followers
Shelved as 'dnf'
January 4, 2017
I tried with this book. I gave it 150 pages, and at this moment in time I just can't get into it. The constant literary allusions and pop culture references, mixed with the didactic and wordy writing style kept pushing me out of the story. I'd skim whole paragraphs just to find the important, plot-moving parts of the sentences. I held out hope for this one because I chose it for book club (sorry, friends!) and it's been on my shelf for 2+ years, so I felt like I had to conquer it. But it's only day 3 of 2017, and I don't want to start off my year forcing myself to read a book I'm not enjoying—even if that means quitting on the first book of the year. Now I'm on to better reads!
Profile Image for Oriana.
Author 3 books3,379 followers
July 29, 2013
Let me start by saying that I did like this book. I did. Ms. Pessl is probably too smart for her own good, but that's never stopped me before.

That said, as with most over-intelectualized writings, I had trouble getting close to her, to her work. There's such a lot of time spent obfuscating, demonstrating how clever she is, developing stacked metaphors and allusions, that the story is difficult to get lost in. You are constantly reminded that you are reading a novel by a very smart young lady. And while some of the characters are extensively developed (Hannah, Jade, Blue's father), most of the others, including our "heroine," Blue, remain very flat. She, most of all, has so little emotion that it's difficult to believe her on the few occasions when she freaks out; when she cries or yells, you wonder, "Where did that come from?"

Also, some of my friends have complained (rightly) that the last fifty-ish pages seem to belong to a completely different book, that everything changes drastically right at the end, without ample warning. Which: true, true. Although I guess that didn't bother me so much, because of course once it switches you can go, "Oh so that's why that happened, and that, and that." But still I guess it was a little hard to swallow.

In any case, the book is definitely compelling, interesting, imaginative, original, etc., etc., etc. And really, it's only her first book, so she's got lots of time to improve. I'll read her next one, for sure.
Profile Image for Jessica.
Author 1 book198 followers
October 28, 2018
This is a story told through books themselves, a whodunnit, a coming-of-ager. Some will find this book too gimmicky...the use of a syllabus outline, the visual aids, the fact that the first word of the book is dad and the last word is me (thus encapsulating the entire story arch), the final exam. But this book made me feel the way I did during a college lecture on Lolita, where the professor broke down Lolita by numbers, the numbers of the license plates, the hotel room numbers, etc. They all swirled and anagrammed their way into a ridiculous formula at the end. And so it turned out, that not only was Nabokov churning out a literary masterpiece, but a mathematical formula as well. Who knew? Certainly not 21-year-old Me. It might be gimmicky, but these sort of books are the literary equivalent of walking while chewing gum while playing the cello - the authors are strange maestros of many art forms. And so I've concluded that Nabokov is the silent, invisible uncle of "Special Topics", Pessl's patron saint, and not just because of the butterflies and the old professor/precocious girl pairing.
Profile Image for Fabian.
957 reviews1,626 followers
July 21, 2021
If the whimsy of "Bonjour Tristesse" met & mated with all that malignant student magic from "The Secret History" this would be their child. This Gen-Nexter novel holds the pulse of the zeitgeist under its overachieving, overintelligent finger and lets it be known: this is the novel for our generation, for the eager me!me!&onlyme!s. The heroine is such a brat, the reader often remembers past characters like these: uberegotist humanoids--selfish to the extreme, & SMILES--here is their side of the story (indeed, I know of one or two overachieving, overintelligent high schoolers which still instantly make me cringe). That the young characters loathe and are still wholly attracted to the poor, poor teacher--that the ending is as bleak and miserable as an empty box... this is the new B. E. Ellis for sure. (A better one, actually, since this is, in effect, TODAY.)

An instant modern classic!
Profile Image for Erica.
40 reviews3 followers
October 2, 2008
What have I learned? I've learned that apparently it's possible for a large number of fawning reviewers to confuse "pretentious" with "intelligent". I very likely got what I deserved when I chose to ignore a clear warning, namely the so called "Glossary of Terms" inside the dustjacket which introduced our 16 year old heroine, Blue van Meer, as "a brainy, deadpan, preternaturally erudite girl who...has a head crammed full of literary, scientific, and philosophical knowledge." Admittedly, I was taken in by the somewhat amusing and engaging first page, but after that...imagine spending 500 pages with a sheltered, socially inept, overly verbose adolescent know-it-all. Yuck.

The kindest thing I can say about this book is that it's desperately trying to be a long-winded young adult version of The Secret History with a nasty case of Purple Prose:

"But at last, at the very end of the twisting gravel road was the house, an awkward, wooden-faced coy mistress clinging to half a hill with bulky additions stuck to her sides like giant faux pas."

But wait, there's more:

"There was no sound in the claustrophobic hallway except Zach's breathing which heaved like the interior of a conch shell. I could feel his eyes dripping down me, coursing through the folds of Jefferson's crispy black dress that resembled an upside-down shitake mushroom if you squinted at it. The silvery-black fabric felt flimsy, as if it could stiffly peel away like tinfoil around cold fried chicken."

'nuff said.
Profile Image for Emily.
41 reviews80 followers
June 5, 2007
I was about one-quarter of the way through this book when I had a strange revelation. It was, basically, kind of formulaic. And yet, the formula was rare and unpredictable. See, several years ago, I read Donna Tartt's The Secret History, a dark book about a group of preciously sophisticated, murderous wacked-out Classics majors at a small liberal arts college. I was captivated. Six months ago I read Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket's) The Basic Eight, about a group of precociously sophisticated, murderous high school students at a San Franscisco high school. I was, again, captivated. And then I read Special Topics In Calamity Physics, about a preciously sophisticated group of prep school kids that get involved in...is it a murder? A suicide? And I thought, is this some sort of new trend in fiction? The secret, murderous high school club? If it is the new trend, I understand why, I suppose. High School can murder anyone's soul, and it's tightly knit cliques that tend to do the most murdering. (I know the Secret History took place at a college. but it was about Classics majors, and they are just plain weird.)
As a literature junkie, I also think I understand why these characters are always precociously smart- because former English majors and literature geeks dream them up, and it's such fun to dream up a character that lets you quote Joyce and Shakespeare nonstop.
So, maybe I couldn't help but take this book with a grain of salt, and maybe the main character seemed just a bit too grown up for her years. But here's the thing- I couldn't stop reading the book. Like, I was obsessively carrying it around, and during the climactic sequence, I just sat there on the bus and didn't even notice I was late to work. So it's got formulaic elements, but the solution to the mystery bears no resemblance to either Daniel Handler or Donna Tartt. And so heroine Blue seems a bit too wise for her years...so does Harry Potter, after all. I'd pick this one up if you like intrigue and don't mind a bit of academia along the way. (Yes, there are references to Joyce and Shakespeare along the way).
Profile Image for Nick Black.
Author 1 book740 followers
September 5, 2013
FINAL EXAM -- You might first review my ongoing commentary as I digested this oleose turd.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics is

(a) a bullshit patty between two slices of lies
(b) a ghastly spasm of false erudition and pretension to knowledge
(c) nothing to do with physics whatsoever, and indeed infuriating in its suggestion that someone who hasn't even taken calculus is "writing essays on String Theory" (capitalization not, I assure you, mine), and indeed that AP Physics in either its Classical Dynamics or Electromagnetics formats has anything to do with the oft-referenced Special Theory of Relativity (also, the line "like studying quarks and quantum mechanics at the same time" -- nicely alliterative, but HOW THE FUCK WOULD YOU STUDY QUARKS WITHOUT QUANTUM MECHANICS)
(d) Christ, a waste of my time (see Visual Aid 1.0 ("Results", Electron Band Structure in Germanium, My Ass, Lucas Kovar, 2001, Annals of Improbable Research))
(e) all of the above

oh yeah, and gareth killed hannah. i'm going to go drink the bathroom cleaner until i hurl chunks of my spleen. fuck you, marisha pessl.

GT Bookstore, 2008-08-26, impulse acquisition
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Casey.
722 reviews59 followers
January 18, 2008
This first bit is my initial reaction to the book. I'm keeping it up because I still think it's valid. However, see bellow for my post-reading thoughts.

Oh, how I hate this book. The parenthetic statements are making me homicidal. The dad is a jackass of unparalleled proportion, and I have yet to see Hannah do ANYTHING that warrants Blue's fascination. Sure, she picks up strange men in diners, but really, who hasn't? The writing is way too fond of its own wit, and I'm sick of all the figurative language. It's crammed in like a hermit crab in a too-small shell (that simile is my own (and purposefully poor), but not unlike the fifty million that litter every page of the book).

Now, it does have one thing going for it: plot. If someone were to tell me what the book is about without my having to read it, I'd be thrilled. Because I certainly do want to know what happens, but damn, it's a slog.

After finishing:

As you can tell from the above, I initially hated this book. I was eagerly awaiting the end so I could grant it ZERO stars. And I stand by my claims. Call me old-fashioned, but I think a sentence should have no more than one simile or metaphor. And I think that figurative language should be spread out a bit, because it gets to a point that it's annoying and distracting. Now, I acknowledge that this overcrowding might have been on purpose--the story is told in a teenager's voice--but it was annoying and distracting. The same thing goes with with the over-abundance of citations (although near the end of the book, there's a confrontation in the dad's office, and the citation bit gets pretty funny). And I know the dad is supposed to come off as an ass, but it made me impatient. Finally, the teen dialog was dismally inauthentic. Dee and Dum especially rang false. So I still have some reservations about the book (as my boyfriend will tell you, it's a bit banged-up because I threw it a few times).

So how did it go from zero stars to four? Well, it all happened around page 311. That's when the language loosened up a little, and Pessl let what she really had going for her--the plot--take over. At this point, the story takes a dramatic turn, and it almost seems to become a different book. It made a quick transformation from AWFULLY LAME to a pretty cool action/mystery piece. I will say that I felt like this was an abrupt change that though (again) may have been on purpose, was a little awkward. But damn, who cares? From that point on, I couldn't put the book down, I kept turning back to clues in earlier pages, I accidentally let my 7th period silent reading go on ten minutes too long. Just like Blue realized she'd been duped, I saw that what I thought was a completely shitty book was, in actuality, quite fantastic.

I have some problems with the last chapter--it was a little self-indulgent, I thought--but it's a small complaint.

I hope that people who are hating this give it a chance.

Well played, Marisha Pessl, well played. You got me.
Profile Image for Jason Pettus.
Author 24 books1,331 followers
June 27, 2007
(Full review can be found at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com:].)

Okay, I'll admit it -- that whenever I hear of another young, good-looking first-time author in New York getting an obscenely high advance on their first book and suddenly becoming The Talk Of The Town, I automatically become suspicious, as sure a response from me as Pavlov's dogs salivating at the sound of their little bell. And that's because I've been around various people in the New York literary industry now long enough to know, that many of the decisions in that industry are made with the same immature dysfunction of a high-school Homecoming dance; that those who are chosen to become the next "Belle of the Ball" have been chosen perhaps because they're physically attractive, or popular, or are having sex with the captain of the football team, or have personality types that are easy to sell to others, or any of another thousand reasons besides that they simply deserve it.

And indeed, as I started making my way this week through Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics, the latest book from the literary world to be guilty of all the things mentioned above, the news didn't seem good; that for its first couple of hundred pages, the entire thing comes off as a grandly pretentious excuse for MFA holders to justify the years of their lives and tens of thousands of dollars they wasted to get that degree in the first place. The story of gifted child and snotty high-school senior Blue van Meer, the novel at first seems like it'll be going down the same well-worn path made most famous by the 1989 movie Heathers -- wherein a group of precocious teenagers who worship the pop culture of their grandparents' generation stand around not acting like teenagers at all, spouting world-weary attitudes that most high-schoolers have difficulty even understanding, much less affecting. And it doesn't help, of course, that Pessl's writing style simply screams "please love me for all the big words I know, and I hope my cutesy intellectual diversions keep your mind off the fact that the plot isn't actually very good" (see Your Superfluous Postmodern Footnotes Make Me Want to Stab You in the Head: Why No One in their Twenties Should Ever Be Allowed to Read David Foster Wallace, J. Pettus, 7th ed.).

But then...but then. But then I started getting further along into the book, started getting used to the odd halting style of Pessl's writing. And I started realizing that there were other intriguing things going on in the story as well, multiple layers that Pessl was laying down in such a subtle way to not even be noticable at first -- for example, like the infinitely complex relationship Blue has with her intolerably snotty professor father Gareth, of the hermetically tight situation they have formed because of Blue's mother being dead and the two of them living in a different city every year. Or of the way Blue finally and slowly starts acting like an actual teen as the book progresses; the way she lashes out emotionally in awkward situations, her tendency to take the things said to her much too literally, even as she believes herself to be too smart and much too educated to succumb to such immaturity.

What quickly starts...
Profile Image for Dan Schwent.
3,005 reviews10.6k followers
Want to read
June 8, 2018
This one is going back on the pile. I made it over 100 pages this time. That's something, right?

My problems with this book are the glacial pace and overwritten sentences. It's like an even more wordy Donna Tartt book. I don't need literary references cited in every paragraph and overblown dialogue and flowery language for the sake of flowery language don't impress me at this stage in the game. The pretentious, pompous tone of the book is also a turn-off. Picking up the book to read it began feeling like a chore before I finally threw in the towel.

I'm a man with a finite lifespan and thus a finite amount of books I'll be able to read before I reach the clearing at the end of the path. I think I'll go read something more engaging.
Profile Image for Jesse (JesseTheReader).
468 reviews176k followers
December 30, 2022
This one was rough for me! I haven't read any reviews & I'm not sure if this has been pointed out (it probably has been lol), but this one felt so similar to the secret history that it was hard for me to not spend a majority of the book comparing the two. The book felt so unnecessarily long winded and the main characters perspective was... not my favorite to put it nicely. All in all this just wasn't for me!
Profile Image for Tom Quinn.
552 reviews167 followers
December 22, 2020
A Frankenstein's monster of fast and furious factoids. A homemade goulash of parlor romance, teen coming of age, and Agatha Christie. Think Jeopardy! meets Degrassi High. Think Gilmore Girls meets Trivial Pursuit. Think some other low culture thing meets some sort of high culture thing, but whatever you're thinking, think fast.

Our narrator is a girl named Blue, and if you want to assign some symbolic meaning to that, go ahead - consider it the Lit Crit equivalent of a BINGO free space. She has a mind like a steel trap, bouncing gaily from reference to reference with nary a pause or a look behind to see how they've been landing. She's bright and breezy and quick but her pattering is like a pirouetting dance around something unpleasant and dark. She seems like a friendlier DFW and this book like a less aggressive Infinite Jest, covering some similar territory viz. mental health, family dysfunction, and academia, launching volleys of well-read and clever allusion but without the heavy patronizing "keep up if you can" vibes.

3 stars. Some will say it's too long, or too tiresome, and they will have a point, but I say it's still an enjoyable read for fans of higher education, big important books, and overthinking.
Profile Image for Andrew Smith.
1,082 reviews620 followers
March 20, 2018
I only got about 20% of the way through this one. But do keep in mind that it’s a big book: over 500 pages or 21 hours of listening. I don’t like giving up on books and I’d really enjoyed her 2014 novel Night Film so I did try to stay with it. The problem is that though there’s a relatively enticing story here the telling is just so protracted, so tiresome that I lost the will.

It kicks off by introducing 24-year-old Blue van Meer who’d lost her mother early (car accident) and is now touring America with her father, moving from one academic outpost to the next. At the point I gave up, Blue had already flagged another death and had introduced us to the fated lady. The story was working its way – very slowly – the the point of her demise.

I think it’s the style as much as the pontification that got to me. It really is like listening to the ramblings of a twenty-something: chuntering on, using lots of words - far too many for the point being made. The whole thing just blathering away without making any significant progress.

Some reviewers have compared this book to The Secret History. I can see the similarities, but Donna Tartt’s book, although flawed, did grab me more and made me stay with it. This is a book that readers will either love or hate, I feel. I think I’ve nailed my colours to the mast on that one.
Profile Image for Anne.
80 reviews96 followers
January 20, 2019
Special Topics... has certainly stirred the passions of readers and critics...especially those who love-to-hate first novels by young, successful authors. At the sight of Marisha Pessl's author photo -- lovely, unsmiling introspective waif -- I had to hold down my hate reflex with both arms, both legs, and my forehead. Yet twenty pages later, any evidence of hate (or even a struggle) was gone. I was captivated.

Blue Van Meer lost her mother at a very young age and now hops around the country with her uber-academic, Clooney-esque father, a political science professor. They decide to spend her senior year of high school in one place -- Stockton, NC -- where Blue attends a prestigious private school and attracts the interest of Hannah Schneider, a beautiful and mysterious film studies teacher who mentors an exclusive clique of students, the Bluebloods. The closer our heroine gets to this group and to Hannah, and the more she uncovers about a series of mysterious deaths, the more she discovers about her own past. The mystery made my heart pound and my inner teenager recall the taste of liquor mixed with lip balm. Pessl reveals -- subtlely but powerfully -- that difference between how teenagers see their lives (a whirlwind of importance, majesty, and despair) and the reality of them. Blue is so smart and well-read, yet she's also believably naive, self-critical, self-aggrandizing. I also love how Pessl describes the relationship between Blue and her father. It's hard to write father-daughter stuff in a way that isn't cheesy or disturbing, but this works. I do have some issues with the rendering of Hannah and the Bluebloods...I wanted to know more about them and their relationships with Blue but wound up just thinking rather poorly of them--which was disappointing. And it's weird that someone named Blue would be in a clique called the Bluebloods. (Excuse me while I put on some Joni Mitchell.)

The way this book is written is noteworthy, but style and form illuminate rather than eclipse the story. Special Topics... is organized like a college syllabus for a lit course; each chapter is named after a novel that is at least loosely thematically related (Wuthering Heights, Women in Love, and so forth) to its contents, and throughout, no source is left uncited. Well beyond its ToC, the book pokes fun at academia and living too much in books/films/etc., but it does so with such joy...the cited quotations bloom from, rather than merely garnish, the text. They also show what a life of reading gives us...what a gift it can be. I was reminded of the debate in History Boys about using quotations as little showy flourishes vs. using them to really engage with an issue. Pessl does both, and she pokes fun at the former while showing the limitations even of the latter. And I must say that I love the voluptuous vocabulary of this book, its brimming wit and beauty; it feels just right for these characters and this story.

Special Topics is not a perfect book, and there were certainly moments when I rolled my eyes (but I imagine that Pessl will roll hers too, or is already rolling them, as she ages gracefully into an even better writer) at the grandiosity of it all. But I'm grateful that people are willing to go there, to write like this and feel like this and create a world and a character I wanted to stay with for much, much longer. "Spare" writing has its place, but so does the lush. I applaud it.
Profile Image for Tori.
136 reviews
December 8, 2007
Struck by a severe attack of the cutes, an over-worked bag of metaphors, and flimsy characterization. The dialogue is unnatural and in most cases unfitting for the characters (Dee and Dum's conversations in particular strike me as unreal for high schoolers). Most of these things are stylistic and, while annoying to read, can be groomed out with some forethought and good editing. The book, as has been acknowledged by other people, could easily be a hundred pages shorter than it is.

Blue I found sympathetic as a teenager who related more easily with books and films than actual people. It's natural, and forgiveable, for a girl as sheltered as she to fall under the spell of the Bluebloods, the beautiful people you find at any high school. Eventually she learns that they are not worth knowing--a fact of growing up and graduating from teenagerhood.

So if the Bluebloods are fascinating only due to their looks (which exert a gravitational pull on the eyes of everyone else, thereby inflating their fascination even for people like Blue who, as her dad might say, should know better), what about Hannah? The entire novel is predicated on the premise that Hannah is worth writing/talking/freakishly obessing over. The Bluebloods do it. Blue does it. Her dad does it, if Blue's suppositions about Gareth and Hannah's ongoing affair are correct. But what blows the whole novel for me is not the excessive hyperbole and verbal diarhea, but Hannah. She's not worth it. I can't buy into the obsession because Pessl can't make her worth the interest.

We're supposed to find her incredibly fascinating because Blue tells us she is fascinating, insists ad nauseum that Hannah is a Movie Star, a walking Tragic Past slash Freaking Rubiks Cube (see Redundant and Overused Gimmicks of Modern Literature, Pessl 2006). Yet there's nothing about Hannah herself that lives up to the hype. Agreed, she's a bit strange, melodramatic, and probably depressed. She's gorgeous in a classic, 1940s femme fatale kind of way, and she likes to samba with her wineglass in the living room. She dies in a freakish way (suicide or murder, pick your brand of mustard). But what about her warrants the Bluebloods' adoration? Or Blue's intense fascination? If Blue is so perceptive, why can't she see that this woman is nothing more than a veiled plot device (woman murdered in woods = oooh, a whodunit)?

What we mostly get of Hannah is description, for Pessl is unable to make Hannah interesting through Hannah herself. She very rarely speaks in conversation, and when she does, it's hardly enlightening. Very early in the novel--I think it's the second time Blue meets her--Blue describes Hannah as this glowing personality whose words you just had to pay attention to, the assumption being that even if they are not particularly weighty, profound, or radiating wisdom like a nuclear reactor (ha! see, it's catching), that they are at least clever or novel enough to be worth hearing. But Hannah's side of the ensuing conversation is nothing more than the standard chit-chat Hi-how-are-yous When-did-you-moves How-do-you-like-Stocktons that any neighborly grandmother could come up with. Hannah is nothing more than a manequin that Pessl dresses up like the mysterious leading lady, but ultimately she's vapor. Synopsis: this novel is mostly fluff. At times amusing fluff, but pretty gratuitous.
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,541 followers
August 5, 2012
Brilliant rendition of an unforgettable brainy teen who feels compelled to leave her world of books to solve the mystery of a teacher’s death. Many will find the book too long with not enough meaningful human action, but I found the world of the lead character’s mind grew on me as a doomed, but attractive, refuge from the narcissistic void facing many youth today.

Sixteen year old Blue van Meer moves to a small town in North Carolina with her political science professor dad and recounts her senior year at an exclusive private school, St. Galway. She takes up with a disaffected clique of privileged kids which regularly gathers at the home of art teacher Hannah. We are told from the beginning that Hannah dies a mysterious death and that the impact of her death is linked in Blue’s mind with making sense of her own mother’s death when she was an infant. As Blue’s father moves nearly yearly from college to college, she grows up never experiencing any long lasting friendships or community ties and, consequently, comes to adopt her father’s mode of relying more on the lessons and ideas from books than the real world.
This approach to life as one big lesson plan is a fascinating place to dwell for awhile as a reader. Blue’s witty recourse to the insights from novels, philosophies, biographies, music lyrics, and movies is fun and fresh at the beginning. This wears thin and begins to irritate after 100 pages or so. Having books chapters named after famous books begins to seem absurd and pretentious. If you are like me, it soon dawns on you how fatally flawed and sterile Blue’s mode of existence is. She really can’t connect emotionally to anyone, and you almost wonder if she isn’t missing something in having no serious challenges from the usual teen obsessions with drugs, sex, and rock and roll. I almost felt like cheering when she cries for the first time over a vicious public comment made by a boy she likes.

Luckily for the reader, Blue eventually gets engaged in doing something in the real world through pursuing the mystery of Hannah’s death. In the process, she learns that neither Hannah or her father were what they seemed, and she begins to emerge from her chrysalis. This character is going to loom in my mind for a long time as some kind of parable. At the moment, I translate it as being like a dweller in Plato’s cave who tries to make sense of reality not with his own senses, but by recourse to a vast library, a strategy fated to have limited success.
Profile Image for Caroline .
429 reviews594 followers
March 18, 2018

What Special Topics in Calamity Physics is: a book about a sixteen-year-old girl and her dad living in a new town. What it isn’t: a book about physics. What it is: a book about a sixteen-year-old girl, her five uber-cool new friends, and one doting teacher. What it isn’t: all that it appears to be. Really, the story is indefinable. At its heart it’s a murder mystery, but to say that is also rudely dismissive--of its thoughtfulness, its quirkiness, its complexity. Special Topics in Calamity Physics is shocking, sobering, and even funny.

Where it really stood out for me was in its intelligent prose; endless literary references; unique turns of phrase; well drawn, enigmatic characters; and its carefully thought-out mystery (complete with a didn’t-see-it-coming twist). At the center is Blue van Meer, a genius teen who’s unwittingly pulled into a complex mystery and feels compelled to play sleuth.

Pessl skillfully created a dark, secretive world here, down to the finest details, and it feels real. It’s clear her aim was to make this book as much of a character study as a knock-out mystery, and in many ways she did that. Her main characters are distinctive in an offbeat way and easy to envision and hear, the settings atmospheric with just the right touch of sinister. Her writing is unusual and accomplished.

To top it off, Pessl is also a talented artist; she included detailed sketches throughout. These are a fun touch that elevate and enhance the story. One drawing is even educational and central to understanding a key point in the mystery.

Now, here’s where I’ll stop waxing poetic about Pessl. At the same time I was impressed by her writing, I was annoyed by it. She’s a wordsmith and an artist, and I can appreciate that, but her writing is ostentatious and even a little snobby. It explodes with similes and metaphors and literary references. She chose to make language acrobatics her priority, stuffing more show-offy cleverness in a six-page chapter than can be found in a book of average length. At the very moment the plot finally starts to catch fire, she doused it with wit and cleverness (a wit and cleverness that doesn’t always work):
"A square of gauze and a small hypodermic needle were stuck into my left hand (mosquito), which was linked by a thin tube to a bag of clear liquid hanging over me (mistletoe)."
Even the name “Blue van Meer”...it’s yet another flourish that smacks of pretentiousness.

One sure thing about this book, though, is that it’s unforgettable. The father-daughter focus, although not unique, is unique as Pessl presented it. I was enamored of the father. He’s playful, with a voice so distinct and utterly hilarious at times that each scene featuring him is his and his alone. He and his daughter form an intriguing pair, a tiny family of two geniuses, a dynamic duo that discusses Plato and quotes “Hamlet” daily and without a second thought.

The book ends on a surreal and sobering note, a smart choice on Pessl’s part if only because it lends the kind of gravity that really resonates, that makes a story memorable. No formulaic murder mystery would end this way, leaving me with feelings so mixed and with so much to ponder.

(Tip: Re-read the introduction after finishing the book.)

My Special Topics in Calamity Physics book haiku:

Blue plays Nancy Drew
When all she was planning on
Was making new friends.
Profile Image for David Katzman.
Author 3 books475 followers
July 7, 2013
Special Topics in Mixed Feelings. Report from the Gifted & Talented program: there was much brilliance on display in the novel in question. My report from detention: some qualities of it irritated the hell out of me and one glaring structural element weakened it.

The premise: A genius high schooler is being dragged by her widowed, genius college-professor father from small college town to small college town and transferring from school to school. Said genius high schooler (one Blue van Meer) lands her senior year--with likely prospects of Harvard--in an elite private high school where she is drawn into the spoiled richie-rich cream-of-the-crop clique of the school. Oddly, the clique is guided (mentored) by a woman they worship, a beautiful young teacher who shouldn't be partying with her students but does.

It's rather like Gossip Girl at a MENSA meeting. Or Oscar Wilde in Mean Girls.

Many of the characters are quite cruel (and witty in their cruelty), and although Blue is the wallflower of the group, she is just as clever if not more so (although only in her thoughts) and just as cruel. I felt sympathy for her initially because she was so reserved compared to the others and much less spoiled. However, at a certain point, I started to feel she was just as heartless and judgmental as the rest, and the wit began to wear a bit thin. Much of the book is not very generous in spirit, if you will. Pessl has a sharp eye for human attributes that should be mocked. Admittedly there is a turning point at the very end wherein Blue reveals a bit more generosity of spirit, but it doesn't make up for the extended exhaustion. Even the dumb high schoolers seem to be masters of pointed viciousness, which rings rather false. Not every teenager can be as clever as the scriptwriters for Heathers. I found Blue's father, the professor, particularly grating. He was, I suppose, like the ultimate arrogant intellectual who always insists on his rightness and looks down on almost all others. He was an intellectual bully (an Alpha Dog of the Intelligentsia) who insists on his rightness and mocks any who disagree. It would appear his daughter inherited quite a bit of that attitude. Many of his spoken pronouncements felt like they had been written down in an essay rather than naturalistically spoken. At many points, I felt characters said things that were so cleverly stated that they were unnatural and artificial. I wasn't reading about a real "character" I was reading the cleverness of the writing (the author's cleverness). And for the most part, she gets away with it because it is damn smart. But after a while the witty cruelty started to get irritating. I became a little bored with it because although it maintained a fairly consistent high level of cleverness...it maintained a fairly consistent high level of cleverness. It was like listening to my favorite comedian...for 10 hours. Yes, he's damn funny. But after a while, his style isn't surprising any more and his jokes get repetitive. At times, the style was too mannered, almost precious.

I started the book truly enamored by the intelligence and humor on display but by the halfway point, I started to feel...shouldn't this be ending soon? The book was about 1/2 too long. And there is a reason for that as well: the book is really bifurcated into two stories. It begins as a comedy of teen manners, but then it unexpectedly morphs into a mystery-suspense novel. I won't spoil the turn of events, but I must point out that really it was like two different books knotted together in the middle, and this turn bothered me. The "mystery" situation is quite clever as well, and I was drawn rushing toward the conclusion to discover the solution. But what started as a character study transformed in the second half to something signicantly plot driven. I wanted to know the solution to the mystery ... just to know it. Not because I was concerned about the characters involved. It was in pursuit of answers to the clues.

The mystery half of the book is exceedingly convoluted. And I fear if you pull at it too much, some strings come unravelled. A few big holes for me were [THESE ARE FAIRLY MAJOR SO DON'T READ IF YOU WANT TO READ THIS BOOK.] I did enjoy the mystery piece of the book to some extent, but at the same time it kept nagging at me that I was suddenly reading a different book. I had lost interest in the characters.

I'd note too that the book includes sketches of characters from the book by the author positioned as if the narrator had drawn them. The sketches didn't really add anything to the narrative overall, and as such contributed to my feeling that they demonstrated cleverness for cleverness sake. I suppose their purpose is to make the book have more of a "textbook" feeling to it, with "visual aids." However, as they were far too sparse to really live up to that purpose, they instead seemed arbitrary. And as the novel shifted into mystery mode, the drawings became less frequent. A similar element of the book that seemed to me to be shoe-horned was titling each chapter with the name of a work of classic literature. It reminded me of an author who mentioned Proust repeatedly to add credibility to his own writing. In this case, I could only find very surface level reasons why each of the titles was associated with the book in question. For example, a chapter entitled Moby-Dick related to a single-minded pursuit. The relationship between the work of classic literature (as best as I could determine because I had only read about 1/4 of them), and the given chapter seemed so surface level that it ended up having the effect of name-dropping rather than providing any profound critical intertextuality.

This is the kind of book I'd recommend to a friend just for the sheer wit, but it's like recommending a new brand of fruit-flavored vodka. Tastes great at first, then becomes too overbearingly sweet or fruity, and eventually leaves you with a headache.
Profile Image for Shannon .
1,221 reviews2,215 followers
July 27, 2008
This was a weird case of having high expectations and having no expectations, and being disappointed in one and reasonably well satisfied in the other. Overall, though, I didn't like it, and found it to be pretty obnoxious.

The best way to introduce this one is to use the blurb off the back:
Calamity Physics: The resulting explosion of energy, light, heartbreak and wonder as Blue van Meer enters a small, elite school in a sleepy mountain town. Blue's highly unusual past draws her to a charismatic group of friends at St. Gallway (see page 2, "wild, wayward youths," Everyman Parenting) and their captivating teacher, Hannah Schneider. A sudden drowning, a series of inexplicable events, and finally the shocking death of Hannah herself lead to a confluence of mysteries. And Blue is left to make sense of it all with only her gimlet-eyed instinct and cultural lexicon to guide her.

As usual, it's pretty vague, so I'll just expand on a few of those points: "unusual past" probably refers to her upbringing: dragged around the country by her dad, a university professor specialising in civil wars, whose idea of fun driving games is to get his daughter to memorise The Waste Land or recite essays. Her dad is extremely opinionated, in that my-word-is-the-only-truth kind of way, and Blue regurgitates him line for line, word for word, throughout the book. The very first line begins with "Dad always said...", something that pops up in one grammatical form or another on every bloody page, sometimes more than once.

Her mother, Natasha, is dead (her car hit a tree when Blue was about 5), leaving her only child in the hands of a self-obsessed, womanising, pedantic, obnoxious prat - at least, that was how I saw him. Several other characters comment on how Blue talks about nothing but her dad, and I have to say, that doesn't do Blue any favours as a Sympathetic Main Character.

By "her highly unusual past draws her to a charismatic group of friends..." Well, I can't say what "draws" her to them - except that I didn't get the sense that there was this connection from her point of view, it was all Hannah's doing - because that would be giving something away, but the group wasn't very charismatic. I didn't buy them. They were a boring bunch, elevated to the status of "Bluebloods" (meant to be ironic?) by the other students at the school, simply by being constantly gossiped about. YAWN. More irritation. What didn't fit for me was that, with all Blue's intelligence, why would she hang out with them? They were so mean to her, all the time. That in itself would actually make for an interesting story, but it's never really explained or delved into. I know, I remember, it's easy to get stuck in shitty friendships-that-aren't, like you can get stuck in a relationship that just makes you miserable. But still.

Blue analyses and references everything - and I mean everything, she can't get through a description of someone putting on their coat without getting sidetracked into personality type and simile. Sometimes even with footnotes. It was interesting at first - Messl has a way with words, certainly, and Blue's voice doesn't flag for the entire 514 pages - but by page 400 I was getting pretty impatient and started skimming all the asides, tangents, diversions, pit stops, drive-throughs, excursions that constitute the majority of the book. Take them all out, and you've got maybe 200 pages of rather strange mystery book. The blurb itself contains an example of her "referencing" style, which was an interesting literary device, using the titles or made-up books or their equally fictional chapters to describe a person's attitude or emotion etc.

The references themselves are deceptive. Some are real, obviously so, but the majority appear to be fabricated. I say "appear", because you never know, but out of curiosity I tried looking for some of them, even a poet she quotes, but no luck. If it's not on the internet...

As for the plot, it totally did not go where I was expecting. I thought it would be harmless enough, and mostly at face value - I believed in Hannah's depression precisely because Blue ignored it, I thought the photos of the little girl in Hannah's bedroom were of Hannah's child, dead or lost, because it never occured to Blue, and this seemed even more plausible when articles about disappearing children are found in Hannah's garage. And I believed she had committed suicide.

But no, it's far more complicated than that, and all the clues are in the story (and in the tiresome daddy and Hannah quotes), if you have enough patience to wade through it all over again, which you just might, cause it all seems so ... bloated. Far-fetched, yes, but like they say, the more farfetched, the more plausible it really is. I don't know who says that, but it goes something like that I think. And the ending, that I really didn't expect. But I was right about her dad.

If I was really clever, or wanted to appear really clever, I'd have written this in the same style, just to show-off, y'know. But that would be really wanky, and one Blue is more than enough. To give you a taste, this is what the book is like as a reading experience:

Dad always paused here for dramatic effect, staring across the room at the trite little daisy landscape hanging on the wall, or the pattern of horse heads and riding crops running up and down the faded dining room wallpaper. Dad adored all Suspensions and Silences, so he could feel everyone's eyes madly running all over his face like Mongol armies in 1215 sacking Beijing.

That one wasn't too bad - certainly very visually stimulating; I'm building up...
She pressed PLAY on the answering maching ("You have no new messages") and squinted at June Bug Dorthea Driser's ugly cross-stich quotations hanging in rows along the wall by the telephone ("Love Thy Neighbor," "To Thine Own Self Be True").

Try this one: If this narrative were a quotidian account of the history of Russia, this chapter would be a proletarian's account of the Great October Soviet Socialist Revolution of 1917, if a history of France, the beheading of Marie Antoinette, if a chronicle of America, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth.

It's not that it isn't new, or even clever, 'cause it is. It's that it gets so tiresome, with little happening in-between long, long pages (I know I've said "long, long pages" in previous reviews, so I guess I'm not keen on them), of introspective meanderings and quotes of Almighty Dad which just show that Blue isn't the independent free-thinker that she thinks she is. This one took me way too long to read, and, as if often the case, the more Blue analysed and delved and contemplated and rehashed, the more distanced and estranged I felt.

Profile Image for Blair.
1,794 reviews4,440 followers
July 9, 2015
My initial interest in this book was mainly down to the fact that I had read numerous reviews comparing it to Donna Tartt's The Secret History, one of my favourite novels of all time. Having finished it, I can now say with confidence that these comparisons are fairly inaccurate and really quite lazy. The obvious similarity between the books is that both concern an elite group of young people in an academic setting (in this case, a much-admired clique known as the 'Bluebloods' in an American high school) whose friendships are torn apart by an unexpected death. Otherwise, they are entirely different; Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a very odd book - in fact, it's one of the strangest I have ever read.

At first, I felt sure I was going to dislike the novel. For a start, there's the narrative voice; Blue van Meer is an extremely precocious sixteen-year-old girl who narrates the story using constant references, comparing everything to something else (the book would probably be about a third of its actual length if Blue's incessant metaphors and similies were removed). The style is exhausting, and the continual attempts to cram as many references as possible into each sentence quickly become irritating. Blue's narration is smug and self-satisfied, and it's hard to reconcile this with the fact that the character is apparently a 'wallflower' with little confidence and no real friends other than her fiercely academic father. The characterisation is also, if not exactly bad, then strange - it's difficult to believe that the Bluebloods would actually be friends with each other (or that they would command the respect and awe they mysteriously seem to enjoy from their peers), let alone accept Blue into their clique, however reluctantly. They aren't remotely believable; they come across as a crudely drawn gallery of grotesques, none of whom you can envisage as real people. In fact, none of the characters are at all likeable - including Hannah, the supposedly charismatic teacher at the centre of the Bluebloods' friendship - although this is perhaps intentional.

However, despite its imperfections, the book did draw me in. For all that it irritated me, I never once thought about not finishing it, and around halfway through (once all the largely unnecessary exposition was out of the way) I found myself hooked. I was genuinely intrigued by the mystery surrounding Hannah's identity, which deepens in the final third, and I found the eventual denouement thrilling, with the way the tale unravelled coming as a genuine surprise. Incredibly (given the length of the novel), when I reached the final page, I actually found myself wishing there was more.

There are touches of brilliance in this book, but it's deeply flawed. On one hand, it's impressive that Pessl completed such a lengthy, complex debut at a relatively young age (27); on the other, her immaturity as a writer is evident in its faults. Her skill, wit and intelligence shine through sporadically, only to be obscured by unnecessary detail or missed opportunities - we really don't need to know the exact minutiae of every tiny thing that happens to Blue, and yet the chapters explaining her conclusions about Hannah's death and the conspiracy surrounding it could have benefited from more detail. Special Topics left me feeling that Pessl is a hugely talented writer, but one still finding her feet, and yet to produce her magnum opus. It's worth reading (if you're a persistent reader, that is), but expect an impressive yet imperfect piece of work, not an absolute masterpiece. In any case, it's certainly left me feeling curious about what the author will do next.
Profile Image for Stephen.
456 reviews53 followers
February 8, 2018
I liked this book a lot. Ms. Pessl has a very unique voice. I suspect she is much like the central character Blue, erudite and very well read. Based on this novel and her second Night Film, I think she would be a fascinating dinner companion. Her writing style is however not for everyone. Throughout Topics Blue expresses herself using footnoted metaphors referencing obscure texts. I found this style to be interesting, entertaining and a good fit for Blue's character, but over time it does wear, suggesting an author trying too hard to show off her cleverness.

The first two-thirds of Topics reads as a coming of age story of self discovery as the intellectual and aloof Blue is drawn to the cipher of teacher Hannah Schneider and injected into the high school clique of the Bluebloods. Had Topics held to this story line, developed the Bluebloods and revealed a less imaginative back story for Hannah Schneider I think it would have been a better novel. The latter third devolves into a very contrived and rather silly murder mystery. A poor choice. A smart author like Ms. Pessl should have known and adhered to Occam's Razor: The simplest solution is usually best.

It is interesting to contrast this book with Donna Tartt's The Secret History and Tana French's The Likeness. Both feature an intelligent outsider brought into a clique-ish group of friends with unclear histories and hidden agendas. The main characters in The Secret History and The Likeness like Blue in Topics learn about themselves by uncovering these mysteries. Tartt's novel is like Pessl's very literary. French's is more a straight up mystery. Both are I believe more successful because Tartt and French fully develop all their characters. Pessl develops a compelling Blue but leaves many of her other characters including the key Bluebloods as sketches. Their contribution to Blue's development and the story as a whole is thus less clear.

On my buy, borrow it, skip it scale, Topics is a buy for Ms. Pessl's obvious talent and unique voice. Worth reading again despite the flaws.
Profile Image for Marianna Neal.
484 reviews2,161 followers
July 13, 2021
DNF at p. 130

So, this is going to be my third "DNF" this year... And you know what? I'm not going to feel bad anymore because life is too short to force your way through poorly-written books. But I am pretty sad because I really wanted to love this one.

Look, Night Film is one of my all-time favorite books - I adore everything about it. Now, when it came to Neverworld Wake - it really didn't work for me, but I decided to write it off as a "YA thing", and hoped for the best with Special Topics in Calamity Physics. The biggest problem here, which made it unreadable for me, is how absurdly over-written this is. Seriously, if you want a good example of what over-written looks like, read a few pages of this novel. I made it through about 130 pages and between the personality of the lead character and the writing style I realized that I just couldn't care less about what happens in this book. Here are some examples:
"She stepped onto our porch like an astronaut stepping on the moon."

"As he scrutinized the cartons on the shelves like a scientist engaged in creating an accurate DNA profile from a hair root, I became aware of a woman standing at the far end of the aisle."

"Heads were turned toward me like a troop of Seljuk Turks noticing a lone, unwitting Christian taking a shortcut through their camp on his way to Jerusalem."

"Students observed them with wonder, like they were fast-sprouting pinto beans in a clammy covered aquarium. Teachers —not all, but some—stayed awake all night hating them, because of their weird grown-up youth, which was like gardenias blooming in January, and their beauty, which was both stunning and sad as racehorses, and their love everyone except them knew wouldn't last."

You might say, what's wrong with a few descriptions? Listen, I'm all for creative comparisons, but this is how EVERYTHING in this book is. Everything is "like" something else. It's present multiple times on every single page, and often more than once in a single paragraph. I swear, this book would be half its length if it wasn't over-written like this. I mean, I get it, the protagonist is highly educated, and she's the one telling the story, but this is going way overboard.

I don't have much else to say about this other than, as far as I've read, the characters really didn't pique my interested, but then again, everything was getting lost behind this writing style. No rating, but I definitely wouldn't recommend this novel.


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