Special Topics In Calamity Physics

It’s the name of a novel I just read. Really, it is. I’ve had this one on my nightstand for a while, and I finally finished reading it last week. I desperately wanted to love this book. I didn’t. It was another tedious exercise in postmodern fiction, like The Emperor’s Children. I am not loving this genre.Special Topics In Calamity Physics

Marisha Pessl’s debut novel is set out like a college course, a survey of world literature. Each chapter bears the name of a famous play or novel, and the ensuing prose is supposed to relate to the chapter title. This was a clever come-on that would have been better emphasized if the publisher printed the chapter title at the top of the page. I hated having to continually go back to see how the latest developments related to the chosen work of literature.

Pessl’s main character is Blue Van Meer, the teenage daughter of a college professor who flits from one obscure teaching position to another like the butterflies his late wife used to study. We encounter Blue as she and her father move to fictional Stockton, North Carolina. Prof. Van Meer enrolls his daugher in private school and immediately intervenes to have her named valedictorian. The book follows Blue’s interaction with the teachers and student body at a tony private school. She falls in with a “clique of eccentrics known as The Bluebloods,” who simultaneously welcome her into and shun her from their group. The clique become the favorites of Hannah Schneider, who teaches film to the masses and life-lessons to the clique. A suspicious drowning and a death draw Blue into the excessively complicated mystery of their circumstances and her life.

The plot was artful and intricate. There is an unexpected twist at the end. The artifice of the course syllabus and final exam are inventive. However, the prose is ponderous; the descriptions are tedious; and the overall novel is uneven. The whole effort feels forced and contrived. If you have STICP on your reading list, move it down a few notches.

This year, I’m paying someone else to fix it all.

2 thoughts on “Special Topics In Calamity Physics

  1. I tried to read it for a book club. I accidentally left it at my doctor’s office when I was almost through. I never followed up to get it back, and I’ve NEVER not finished a book that I’ve started.

    I’ve got to go look up the ending now, but yeah. Move it down.

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