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Special Topics in Calamity Physicsby Marisha Pessl
Suspenseful, dark, and extremely funny, Marisha Pessl's debut novel is an impressive feat indeed. Blue van Meer is one of the most intelligent and awkward teenage protagonists in recent years, and her story — which manages to be both a murder mystery and a coming-of-age exploration — is intensely literary (and packed with allusions), as well as emotionally honest and genuinely moving. Special Topics in Calamity Physics is diabolically clever, and a challenging and rewarding read.
What begins as an innocent (if quirky) adolescent tale swiftly transforms into an absorbing high school whodunit. If I had to compare it to a few recent films, it manages to come across both as gritty as Brick and as refreshing as Juno, but with a healthy amount of vintage Gothic inspiration threading its way through the story as well. That tightrope walk of pathos and preciousness has never been navigated so confidently.
"Chutzpah, Marisha Pessl has — and in abundance. [A] thoroughly impressive debut....Fans of Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and those who enjoyed the footnotes in Susannah Clarke's fabulous Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell as much as the plot, head for the bookstore with all speed. If you prefer a more Shaker-like type of storytelling, devoid of verbal curlicues and ironic flourishes, you might want to drop out of this particular class." Yvonne Zipp, The Christian Science Monitor (read the entire CSM review)
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"Pessl's stunning debut is an elaborate construction modeled after the syllabus of a college literature course — 36 chapters are named after everything from Othello to Paradise Lost to The Big Sleep — that culminates with a final exam. It comes as no surprise, then, that teen narrator Blue Van Meer, the daughter of an itinerant academic, has an impressive vocabulary and a knack for esoteric citation that makes Salinger's Seymour Glass look like a dunce. Following the mysterious death of her butterfly-obsessed mother, Blue and her father, Gareth, embark, in another nod to Nabokov, on a tour of picturesque college towns, never staying anyplace longer than a semester. This doesn't bode well for Blue's social life, but when the Van Meers settle in Stockton, N.C., for the entirety of Blue's senior year, she befriends — sort of — a group of eccentric geniuses (referred to by their classmates as the Bluebloods) and their ringleader, film studies teacher Hannah Schneider. As Blue becomes enmeshed with Hannah and the Bluebloods, the novel becomes a murder mystery so intricately plotted that, after absorbing the late-chapter revelations, readers will be tempted to start again at the beginning in order to watch the tiny clues fall into place. Like its intriguing main characters, this novel is many things at once — it's a campy, knowing take on the themes that made The Secret History and Prep such massive bestsellers, a wry sendup of most of the Western canon and, most importantly, a sincere and uniquely twisted look at love, coming of age and identity." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A self-absorbed scholar and a young girl crisscross America by car, flitting through college towns where they endure ill-advised sexual encounters, heartache and a potent dose of popular culture. Studded with ingenious wordplay and recondite allusions, their story veers between highbrow comedy and lowbrow tragedy as it careens toward a couple of ambiguous murders and some crafty detective work.... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Ten points if you identified this as the plot of Vladimir Nabokov's 'Lolita.' Extra credit if you also recognize it (minus the pedophilia) as the plot of a much-ballyhooed first novel by Marisha Pessl, who tackles the art of fiction by vigorously associating everything in her book with something else. Constructing the novel as if it were the core curriculum for a literature survey course, complete with a final exam, Pessl gives each chapter the title of a classic literary work to which the episode's events have a sly connection: Chapter 6, 'Brave New World,' describes the first day of a new school year, while in Chapter 11, 'Moby-Dick,' a large man drowns in a swimming pool. Along the way, there are thousands of references to books and movies both real and imagined, as well as an assortment of pen-and-ink drawings. The book's young narrator, Blue van Meer, has fiercely embraced her father's didactic advice: 'Always have everything you say exquisitely annotated, and, where possible, provide staggering Visual Aids.' Blue's cross-referencing mania can be surprisingly enjoyable, because Pessl is a vivacious writer who's figured out how to be brainy without being pedantic. Like her protagonist, she's eager to make good use of the many books she's read and the movies she's seen. And she loves similes like a fat kid loves cake (Blue would annotate this properly as a line borrowed from the rapper 50 Cent), never settling for one per page when three or eight will do. But hunkering down for 514 pages of frantic literary exhibitionism turns into a weary business for the reader, who after much patient effort deserves to feel something stronger than appreciation for a lot of clever name-dropping and a rush of metaphors. As a Harvard freshman recounting the events of the previous year, when her childhood 'unstitched like a snagged sweater,' Blue remembers being thoroughly in thrall to her father, a political science professor who changes jobs at third-tier colleges so frequently that by age 16 she's attended 24 different schools. To compensate for this rootlessness (her lepidopterist mom died in a car crash when Blue was 5), Dad has promised his daughter an undisturbed senior year in the North Carolina mountain town of Stockton, where Blue will attend the ultra-preppy St. Gallway School. It's at St. Gallway that Blue's dedication to her pompous, theory-spouting father begins to waver. Her attention is diverted by the school's most glamorous figures, a clique of five flighty kids called the Bluebloods who meet every Sunday night for dinner at the home of their mentor, Hannah Schneider, a charismatic film teacher. Blue is miraculously granted admission into this rarefied society, but the reader is not so lucky, having to settle for the novel's customary blizzard of comparisons instead of real characterization." Reviewed by Donna Rifkind, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
After 10 years of traveling with her father, a perennial (and pedantic) visiting lecturer at various, obscure institutions of higher learning, Blue Van Meer finally settles in as a senior at the St. Gallway School in Stockton, North Carolina. There she is bemused to find herself part of a charmed circle of popular kids called the Bluebloods and the protege of the mysterious film-studies teacher, Hannah Schneider. When a friend of Hannah's dies at a party the kids have crashed, this extravagantly arch and self-conscious coming-of-age novel turns into a murder mystery that--although never as Hitchcockian as its publisher claims--is, nevertheless, almost compelling enough to warrant its excessive length. Intriguingly structured as a syllabus for a Great Works of Literature class, Pessl's first novel is filled with references to invented books--and to some real ones, too, including several by Nabokov. Overkill? You bet. But, as a result, 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. ((Reviewed June 1 & 15, 2006)) Copyright 2006 Booklist Reviews.
"The most flashily erudite first novel since Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated." Janet Maslin, the New York Times
"Donna Tartt goes postmodern in this eclectically intellectual murder mystery....The writing is clever, the text rich with subtle literary allusion....Sharp, snappy fun for the literary-minded." Kirkus Reviews
"All the stars seem aligned for the twenty-something author." Time.com
"Witty and exuberant...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." Vogue
"This blockbuster debut, over 500 pages chock-full of literary and pop cultural references and illustrations by Pessl herself, demands attention." People
"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." Booklist
"Anything familiar about this hip, ambitious and imaginative book is easily overshadowed by its many pleasures....There are many wonderful young writers out there, but it's always refreshing to find another with such confidence, who takes such joy in the magical tricks words can perform." Los Angeles Times
“Her exhilarating synthesis of the classic and the modern, frivolity and fate—‘Pnin’ meets ‘The O.C.’—is a poetic act of will. Never mind jealous detractors: virtuosity is its own reward. And this skylarking book will leave readers salivating for more." —The New York Times Book Review
"The joys of this shrewdly playful narrative lie not only in the high-low darts and dives of Pessl's tricky plotting, but in her prose, which floats and runs as if by instinct, unpremeditated and unerring." Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review
The mesmerizing New York Times bestseller by the author of Night Film
Marisha Pessls dazzling debut sparked raves from critics and heralded the arrival of a vibrant new voice in American fiction. At the center of Special Topics in Calamity Physics is clever, deadpan Blue van Meer, who has a head full of literary, philosophical, scientific, and cinematic knowledge. But she could use some friends. Upon entering the elite St. Gallway School, she finds some—a clique of eccentrics known as the Bluebloods. One drowning and one hanging later, Blue finds herself puzzling out a byzantine murder mystery. Nabokov meets Donna Tartt (then invites the rest of the Western Canon to the party) in this novel—with visual aids drawn by the author—that has won over readers of all ages.
Structured around a syllabus for a Great Works of Literature class, 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.
About the Author
Marisha Pessl graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia University.
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