Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

by Marisha Pessl

Janet Kolodner (05/06/12): Unlike Anne, who reviewed this book earlier, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole book, citations and all. It is funny (dry funny), ironic, and immensely clever -- told from the point of view of a precocious 16 or 17 year old. The citations and footnotes are her attempt to back up her story as her father taught her, with scholarly citations as reference. Some of the citations are to real books we've all heard of, some are to books her father supposedly wrote, and some are to made-up histories, true stories, and crime novels.

This book is partially a crime novel, and that's the part of it Anne liked. I, like Anne, could not put the book down for the last 200 or so pages. (Literally, I got off a plane at 1:30 this afternoon, got a chai latte at Starbucks, and sat down in a sunny window of the airport (in DC, where I now live, not Atlanta), and finished reading the book before I caught the Metro home at 4:15 .)

The book is also a coming of age story, and to me, it was also good as the story of an introverted, bookish young woman finding her voice. The author did a magnificent job of keeping the central character, Blue, in character throughout, showing her intellectual, cynical, insecure, and other sides well. Much of who Blue is comes across in her over-the-top descriptions of other characters, as she tells the story of what others think of all the characters and adds her opinions into the mix. The humor in the book stems from the combination of Blue's observations as an adolescent, her inferences as she is trying to figure out her friends, and her inferences as a detective in figuring out the crime. Her father is an especially funny and sad character. Hannah, the other central character in the book, a teacher at the high school and the subject of the detective work, is sad and mysterious.

The coming of age story and the crime story are intertwined with each other. The prose is usually beautiful. "I remember it as a really intelligent book " was what my daughter said to me today when we talked about it (she read it several years ago, and I wasn't allowed to borrow it from her until all of her friends had read it), and I agree.
Rating: *****

Anne Ferber (07/28/11): Blue Van Meer has written her memoir which turns out to be quite a remarkable coming of age story. He mother dies in a car accident when she is five. At the tender age of 16, this 175 IQ prodigy has led an unconventional life, traveling with her brilliant, but itinerant visiting professor father. Not only has she necessarily changed schools every term from the first grade, living in one small town after another for no longer than six months, her education has been supplemented by an original home schooled reference course created by her father, requiring reading, discussing and quoting from a massive assortment of varied literature. The range of her reference seems limitless. She cites title, author, year, and sometimes page number in parentheses to back up any expository statements, or even opinions. This may be amusing at first, but overstays its entertainment value after a while.

Meanwhile, having little or no relationships other than the father whom she adores, her social skills are somewhat lacking, and when she finally arrives at St. Gallway, a private school in North Carolina, she is thrilled to learn that her father has rented a house for a whole year and she can finish her high school education here. This is especially dear, since her father's ambition for her is to be class valedictorian and accepted into Harvard, goals she easily achieves.

She immediately falls in with a group of five exotic, although unimaginative, friends, led by a charismatic teacher, Hannah Schneider. The group is labeled Bluebloods by the hoi polloi who spend Sundays at Hannah's home where she cooks them fine meals and drinks plenty of wine. We learn on page two that Hannah dies by hanging and the next two hundred fifty pages are the back story to that event. In my opinion, 50 pages would have sufficed. The actual plot begins on page 311, chapter 21 in part 3. This is the event leading to Hannah's demise and the rest of the book (ending on page 508) is Blues enlightening struggle to investigate and figure out where, what, when, how and why, etc. Her resourcefulness and discoveries make the last 150 pages or so, a really compelling page turner with twists and turns, and upon which it can be said this is a remarkably well written debut novel.

In Summary, I would rate the first 100 and last 200 pages of this book a five. The rest, unfortunately is tedious redundancy maybe a two. Her writing style is hippish and cool, and some descriptions are downright hilarious, so I would not hesitate to see what Ms. Pessl comes up with next. Hopefully her editor will be less adoring next time.
Rating: ****

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