Marisha Pessl’s 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.
Song For This Book: Sound of Silence by Simon & Garfunkel
I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf for a while, but had promised to read it along with a friend, so we could discuss it as we went. It took us a while, but we finally got around to it about a week ago, and I’ve been hooked since. This novel is fascinating and hard to put down.
Pessl’s first novel introduces us to Blue, an unfortunately named character, but an interesting girl nonetheless. She’s had a pretty crazy life, but her dad’s promised that she can stay in one town for the entirety of her senior year of high school. Except they picked a school with a strange collection of characters, who sweep Blue up into a world she never expected. Where another person might have thought nothing of the strange things going on, and not bothered to look further into them, Blue is compelled to solve the mystery, and gets herself wrapped up into it as well.
The tricky part of this book was to not compare it with Night Film, which I had read first. I absolutely loved Night Film, and therefore had really high expectations for this book. While it didn’t quite live up to Night Film, it was a great book in its own right, and won’t let you down when it comes to a fun mystery. If you’ve never read a Pessl book before, definitely read this one first.
The Good Points of Special Topics in Calamity Physics:
I really enjoyed how this book was written. There are a lot of reviews out there that mention that some of the comparisons are silly, or that the metaphors are unnecessary. I counter that with saying that our protagonist is a teenager, and if you spend a lot of time talking to teenagers, you’re going to find that it sounds like this. It works for Blue’s character, and it worked for the story.
I loved the way the little details that are encountered early in the story come back towards the end and fit together to solve the mystery. There’s just something appealing about it all being under your nose the whole time without realizing it.
The way this book is formatted is interesting and different. It’s set up almost like a thesis or a scholarly paper, with each chapter being named after a work of literature. There are references throughout, and footnotes when needed. It gives you the sense that you could be reading someone’s graduate thesis rather than a novel, which is a nice change of pace from the typical formatting.
I found the main characters of this book to be fascinating. They were well developed, had their own voices and personalities, and were mostly insane. But the latter just served to make things that much more interesting. Her dad, in particular, was intriguing to read about.
The ending is left rather open, leaving you to wonder what happened next. I won’t say more than that.
The Downsides of Special Topics in Calamity Physics:
I hated the references made in the middle of paragraphs. The breaks in the text were so annoying, even though I liked the format. I’m so not an MLA person. Chicago/footnotes all the way!
This was a bit longer than it needed to be, mostly because Blue was a bit longwinded. While I liked how she told the story and how she used metaphors or anecdotes, she could have been more concise, and made this book a quicker read.
I really enjoyed all of the Blueblood characters, I’m not entirely sure why they were all necessary. I’m pretty sure that two of them could have been cut from the story and it wouldn’t have changed a thing.
It’s a fairly predictable story. Where Night Film threw in a fair few twists to keep you off your game, Special Topics was more straight forward. Not in a bad way, but it’s something to be aware of when you get into it.
All in all, I really enjoyed this book, and it’s earned a permanent spot on my shelf. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good thriller or mystery, but warn that you might feel a little disappointed if you read Night Film first. Definitely one that you should add to your to-read list.
Have you read Special Topics in Calamity Physics? Totally (dis)agree with what I said here? Let me know what you thought in the comments, because I really want to talk more about this book!