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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Special Topics in Calamity Physicsis a super-literate, dense but highly readable first novel.  It's a coming-of-age tale, a gentle romance, a murder mystery, and a whole lot more.  Blue van Meers is the sixteen-year-old daughter of a peripatetic single father, who decides to accept a year-long position as a professor of Political Science so that Blue can spend her senior year in one school, a highly regarded prep school.  Blue quickly becomes enraptured by a mysterious, fascinating teacher and her little cluster of over-privileged students/groupies.

Actually, trying to summarize the plot is difficult because there is so much going on.  We learn in the first chapter that the teacher commits suicide during the year (or was murdered), a death that overshadows the whole book.  But Blue also struggles with the social hierarchy of the school and with the supposed "friends" she spends all of her time with, a world completely alien to the highly intellectual, insular world her father raised her in.  Then, of course, there is the relationship with her father -- he doesn't like her new bourgeois lifestyle at all, while she slowly realizes that he is not the paragon she thought he was.

What ties these story lines together is Blue herself, specifically her growing up, if that makes sense.  Blue is an undeniably intelligent girl, and capable of great insight into the people around her; but she is also a teenager, with all that that entails -- self-absorbed, clueless, smug, blind to the faults of those she admires, willing to overlook the obvious in favor of what she wants to be true.  She is more than strong enough to overcome the (admittedly extreme) trials she suffers her senior year, but it is still vicariously painful to see her learn about frenemies, fickle teenage boys, and fallible fathers.

This book is also tremendously, overtly literate.  Narrated by Blue, it purports to be a syllabus, with each chapter named after a major literary work that thematically suits the events she describes.  She peppers her story with reference after reference to books, articles, research papers, scholarly concepts, films, and so on (only some of these references are "real"); there's even a final exam at the back of the book for us to fill out.  It's not just a narrative trick by Pessl; this style suits Blue perfectly, because a lot of her self-image is wrapped up in her intellectual abilities, much like her father.  Fortunately, she has a level of humility and insight (true insight, not the superficial insight her father is so enamored of) that keeps her from becoming unbearable.  It's a real pleasure to see this unusual girl grow up.

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