Special Topics In Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

24 03 2009

special_topics_in_calamity_physicslargeI’ve been going back and forth on what to write about this book for a week now.  I don’t know if I can whole-heartedly recommended it, but I don’t want to discourage anyone from reading it.  It was interesting and well paced and wonderfully written, but the last 1/4 of the book went completely off the rails for me.  Looking at other reviews, this wasn’t true for everyone – and if the ending was different, I’d be raving about it right now – so, give it a try.

Blue Van Meer is the teenage daughter of a brilliant professor who has coped with the death of his wife and Blue’s mother by never staying in one place for more than 6 months.  For her senior year of high school, they move to a small town in North Carolina where she falls in with five seniors and their strange, mysterious teacher, Hannah.  Hannah’s relationship with her students is wildly inappropriate – the 5 of them go to her house every Sunday for home cooked meals, they discuss other teachers and faculty, there’s a rumor flying around the school that she’s sleeping with one (or all) of them.  Seriously, I don’t understand how she kept her job.  But, whatever, I guess these things are cool in private schools (Gossip Girl anyone?).

So, at the very beginning of the book we are told that Hannah dies.  The majority of the book is solving the mystery that is Hannah and how that leads up to her death.  The author is good about dropping hints here and there while ratcheting up the tension.  I felt I needed to figure out this woman with no past as much as Blue and the other students.  And, while you know that the death is coming – it still feels shocking.  Ms. Pessl does a great job of keeping the reader just slightly off balance and there are more than a few awesome “OMGWTF” moments.

This is highlighted by some truly lovely and interesting writing that I loved.  For example, when Blue’s father is addressing the idea that her mother’s death was a suicide – “That very morning your mother had talked to me of plans to enroll in a night class, Intro to Moths of North America, so rid yourself of such dour thoughts.  Natasha was the victim of one too many butterfly nights.”  Dad gazed at the floor.  “A sort of moth moon madness,” he added quietly. Also, this book is written almost as an academic paper, with a “Required Reading” list (the chapter titles) and notations throughout.  This was jarring at first, but once I was familiar it didn’t bother me any more.  And, really, I felt like it worked well with the voice of Blue – Driving with Dad wasn’t cathartic, mind-freeing driving (see On The Road, Kerouac, 1957).  It was mind-taxing driving.  It was Sonnet-a-thons.  It was One Hundred Miles of Solitude: Attempting to Memorize The Waste Land.

This isn’t a perfect book, by a long shot.  While Blue, her father and Hannah are well developed, the supporting characters fell a little flat.  There was a little too much plot the left the book a bit of a sprawling mess by the end.  And, well for me, the ending was just not right.  But – this is Marisha Pessl’s first novel, and a pretty damn impressive one for all of that.  I loved her prose and the concept of this book and look forward to whatever she does next.

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