Friday, April 16, 2010

Review: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

You love some books from the first page — they start with a bang and are wonderful until the last page. You love some books from the last page — in retrospect they're notable and important, but the process of reading them may not have been wonderful. Then there are some books that start off all wrong for you, but you stick with them and are rewarded when the author settles into her story and finds her voice — sometimes books just need to warm up.

Marisha Pessl's 2006 novel Special Topics In Calamity Physics belongs to the latter category. I was initially turned off by it, as I found overwhelming similarities between it and Donna Tartt's 1992 novel, The Secret History — some sentences are almost identical — but then Pessl saves her novel by doing something really unbelievable with the ending.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics is about Blue van Meer, a high school senior starting the school year in a small town in North Carolina. Blue has spent her whole life traveling around the country with her professor father (her mother died 11 years earlier), and narrates the tale from the future, when she is a student at Harvard. At school she falls in with a group of cool, beautiful students and their cool, beautiful film teacher, though they initially keep her at arm's length. As the fall semester progresses, Blue learns that her friends aren't quite what they seem, and, after the death of a man at a party, she realizes that everyone may be caught up in some dangerous activities.

This almost parallels The Secret History, except it takes place in high school instead of college and the teacher is a woman and not a man. But a third of the way through, Pessl shifts the narrative slightly and makes it entirely her own. The focus here isn't on the other students, though elegant Jade, beautiful Charles, ethereal Lu, and the others would be fascinating if Pessl actually did something with them — then again, Blue is the narrator, and the students are not the focus of her story. Instead the object of scrutiny is Hannah Schneider, a 44-year-old film teacher who "adopts" students, bringing them into her home each Sunday for dinner and encouraging their potential in any way she can. It's odd, though, how they all come together, and Pessl never really quite tells us the impetus for each character joining the group.

The best thing about Special Topics in Calamity Physics is that the ending is so incredibly unexpected. I do read mysteries from time to time, but never have a read a mystery (which this novel is, in part) that turned everything on its head so wonderfully — we learn that not a single character is as they seem.

Pessl is an engaging writer, crafting memorable characters (Blue's father is amazing. Lately I've been thinking about parental figures in novels, more on that later I'm sure.) and working with the canon (chapter titles are named for classic books and parallel the plots of those books). It isn't perfect — at times it strays into cliché (how many novels do we need about groups of outsider college students drawn together by a professor?) and if it weren't for the ending I wouldn't have liked it half as much — but I've already recommended it to someone, a sure sign that I like a novel.

1 comment:

  1. Great review, Amy. I liked this book a lot, and now I'm anxious to reread both it and The Secret History.