Townhouse Books

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Special Topics in Calamity Physics: Marissa Pessl

It's been a while since I've read a 500+ page book in a day. I even resorted to using a flashlight to read while riding in a car at night. Special Topics in Calamity Physics is the story of Blue van Meer, a freshman at Harvard who is driven to write an account of her senior year of high school. Blue's life is not ordinary to begin with; she lives a nomadic life with her widowed father, a radical political science professor who accepts only semester-long assignments at backwater colleges across the country. But her senior year is stranger still, with a bizarre cast of characters and plenty of intrigue.

Gareth van Meer, Blue's father, is a mouthpiece for the author's most intellectually snobbish inner thoughts, the sort of things you might think but never dare say. On the subject of memoirs, he tells his daughter that "unless your name is something along the lines of Mozart, Matisse, Churchill, Che Guevara or Bond -- James Bond -- you best spend your free time finger painting or playing shuffleboard, for no one, with the exception of your flabby-armed mother .... will want to hear the particulars of your pitiable existence, which doubtlessly will end as it began -- with a wheeze."

Some people might get tired of Pessl's style -- Blue includes lengthy quotes and academic citations in her narration -- but I bought into it as part of the character. The event that Blue considers her "magnificent reason" for writing down her story is a truly tantalizing mystery, laid out for the reader in the introduction and becoming more mysterious with every passing chapter. Oh, what fun!


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