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Special Topics in Calamity Physics

3.7  ·  Rating Details ·  32,785 Ratings  ·  4,611 Reviews
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, s ...more
Hardcover, 514 pages
Published August 3rd 2006 by Penguin Books Ltd (first published August 2006)
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Community Reviews

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Aug 29, 2007 Patrick rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: easily impressed high school students
Reviews of “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” and the Bottle of Açaí Juice I Bought for Lunch Cleverly Masked as SAT Test Questions

(a) Special Topics in Calamity Physics
(b) The bottle of açaí juice I bought for lunch
(c) Both a and b
(d) Neither a nor b

(1) __ I had heard good things about it
(2) __ I bought it on a whim
(3) __ If feeling extremely charitable, I might call it “frothy”
(4) __ It seemed sort of good in the beginning, but by the end I was like, “Blaahahhgajh. End, end,
Oct 18, 2007 Sarah rated it liked it
There’s a special cold black place in my heart for writers under thirty who come out of nowhere with a best-selling much-praised first novel for which they receive huge advances and instant fame. The feeling is called jealousy - deep, shoulda-been-me jealousy that clouds my ability to judge the book itself.

Which brings us to Marisha Pessl and Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Every big review I read of it was glowing and every writer under thirty I talked to said it was a piece of steaming shi
Jan 21, 2008 Summer rated it did not like it
Shelves: novels, 2008
Donna Tartt wrote a splendid book called The Secret History which both celebrated and skewered hyper-intellectualism as well as explored the process of interacting with a text and the pleasures of narrative devices. This book follows roughly the same storyline (and, incidentally, the storyline of Daniel Handler's The Basic Eight, down to the "study questions" at the end), except there's absolutely no reason for the precious chapter titles and the annotated references - they have no bearing on th ...more
Doug Bradshaw
Jan 26, 2008 Doug Bradshaw rated it it was amazing
I've read other reviews and I believe the negative reviews have been written by people who didn't take time to really read the book and follow it all the way through. It would be easy to do. It's not a book you can speed read. (See Ulysses by James Joyce) Sometimes I'll tear through a good book in a couple of days. But there is so much in this book that you have to take your time to really comprehend it and get the good stuff out of it. Marisha's writing technique is totally unique with her ...more
Jun 18, 2008 James rated it it was ok
I really wanted to like this book.

But it’s a train wreck. The literary carnage is so grotesque and horrifying, you can’t help but look, read. (And I promise you, just take my word for it, that metaphor is better than most that Pessl uses in this debut novel of hers.)

Despite what Bayard says, it’s amazing what happens when you stop talking about a text and actually interact with it. I’ll tell you what happens: disappointment. Utter, utter disappointment.

For all intents and purposes, the book does
Jul 20, 2007 Jessica rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone who wants to think about things, Nabokov fans, basically everyone in the world
Any book that's a truly good book will change your life, at least for a few days after you finish it, as you walk around still somewhat in the world the author created for you. Then you become embarassed. "For Christ's sake, it's only a book," you tell yourself.
This is a story told through books themselves, a whodunnit, a coming-of-ager, and, for me at least, at least a whiff of self-help. (I found myself a bit too recognizable in the June Bug characters). It conforms to my idea that all good s
Let me start by saying that I did like this book. I did. Ms. Pessl is probably too smart for her own good, but that's never stopped me before.

That said, as with most over-intelectualized writings, I had trouble getting close to her, to her work. There's such a lot of time spent obfuscating, demonstrating how clever she is, developing stacked metaphors and allusions, that the story is difficult to get lost in. You are constantly reminded that you are reading a novel by a very smart young lady. A
Nick Black
Sep 05, 2013 Nick Black rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: eight year old girls
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jason Pettus
Jun 27, 2007 Jason Pettus rated it really liked it
(Full review can be found at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [].)

Okay, I'll admit it -- that whenever I hear of another young, good-looking first-time author in New York getting an obscenely high advance on their first book and suddenly becoming The Talk Of The Town, I automatically become suspicious, as sure a response from me as Pavlov's dogs salivating at the sound of their little bell. And that's because I've been around various people in the New York litera
Jun 05, 2007 Emily rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was about one-quarter of the way through this book when I had a strange revelation. It was, basically, kind of formulaic. And yet, the formula was rare and unpredictable. See, several years ago, I read Donna Tartt's The Secret History, a dark book about a group of preciously sophisticated, murderous wacked-out Classics majors at a small liberal arts college. I was captivated. Six months ago I read Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket's) The Basic Eight, about a group of precociously ...more
Oct 01, 2008 Erica rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: No one. Ever.
Shelves: fiction
What have I learned? I've learned that apparently it's possible for a large number of fawning reviewers to confuse "pretentious" with "intelligent". I very likely got what I deserved when I chose to ignore a clear warning, namely the so called "Glossary of Terms" inside the dustjacket which introduced our 16 year old heroine, Blue van Meer, as "a brainy, deadpan, preternaturally erudite girl who...has a head crammed full of literary, scientific, and philosophical knowledge." Admittedly, I was ...more
Dec 07, 2007 Tori rated it it was ok
Struck by a severe attack of the cutes, an over-worked bag of metaphors, and flimsy characterization. The dialogue is unnatural and in most cases unfitting for the characters (Dee and Dum's conversations in particular strike me as unreal for high schoolers). Most of these things are stylistic and, while annoying to read, can be groomed out with some forethought and good editing. The book, as has been acknowledged by other people, could easily be a hundred pages shorter than it is.

Blue I found s
Jan 18, 2008 Casey rated it really liked it
Shelves: adults, 2008
This first bit is my initial reaction to the book. I'm keeping it up because I still think it's valid. However, see bellow for my post-reading thoughts.

Oh, how I hate this book. The parenthetic statements are making me homicidal. The dad is a jackass of unparalleled proportion, and I have yet to see Hannah do ANYTHING that warrants Blue's fascination. Sure, she picks up strange men in diners, but really, who hasn't? The writing is way too fond of its own wit, and I'm sick of all the figurative
Jan 11, 2016 Elizabeth rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I could easily attend a semester-long seminar about this book. Holy "coming of age with murder, suicide, conspiracy theories, and turns you don't see coming because you aren't worthy to walk in the same light as Marisha Pessl" shit, this book was great. Better than Night Film. Bravo.
Shannon (Giraffe Days)
This was a weird case of having high expectations and having no expectations, and being disappointed in one and reasonably well satisfied in the other. Overall, though, I didn't like it, and found it to be pretty obnoxious.

The best way to introduce this one is to use the blurb off the back:
Calamity Physics: The resulting explosion of energy, light, heartbreak and wonder as Blue van Meer enters a small, elite school in a sleepy mountain town. Blue's highly unusual past draws her to a charismati

What Special Topics in Calamity Physics is: a book about a sixteen-year-old girl and her dad living in a new town. What it isn’t: a book about physics. What it is: a book about a sixteen-year-old girl, her five uber cool new friends, and one doting teacher. What it isn’t: all that it appears to be. Really, the story is indefinable. At its heart, it’s a murder mystery, but to say that is also rudely dismissive--of its thoughtfulness, its quirkiness, its complexity. Special Topics
Oct 01, 2007 Anne rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone who once loved The Secret History, spawn of academics, over-readers
Special Topics... has certainly stirred the passions of readers and critics...especially those who love-to-hate first novels by young, successful authors. At the sight of Marisha Pessl's author photo -- lovely, unsmiling introspective waif -- I had to hold down my hate reflex with both arms, both legs, and my forehead. Yet twenty pages later, any evidence of hate (or even a struggle) was gone. I was captivated.

Blue Van Meer lost her mother at a very young age and now hops around the country wit
Brilliant rendition of an unforgettable brainy teen who feels compelled to leave her world of books to solve the mystery of a teacher’s death. Many will find the book too long with not enough meaningful human action, but I found the world of the lead character’s mind grew on me as a doomed, but attractive, refuge from the narcissistic void facing many youth today.

Sixteen year old Blue van Meer moves to a small town in North Carolina with her political science professor dad and recounts her seni
David Katzman
Jul 07, 2013 David Katzman rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Fans of Gossip Girl and MENSA club meetings
Special Topics in Mixed Feelings. Report from the Gifted & Talented program: there was much brilliance on display in the novel in question. My report from detention: some qualities of it irritated the hell out of me and one glaring structural element weakened it.

The premise: A genius high schooler is being dragged by her widowed, genius college-professor father from small college town to small college town and transferring from school to school. Said genius high schooler (one Blue van Meer)
I'm really torn about this. Review to come. Review has arrived! :D
A little bit of back story: I spontaneously bought Special Topics in Calamity Physics way back in 2011 for the only reason I bought books back then: The summary on the back and the first paragraph sounded interesting. Then I read the first first few chapters, really liked them, underlined a lot of sentences, and then put the book down for some reason. Then the book stood on my shelves for a couple of years in which I bought (and r
Sep 08, 2016 Fabian rated it it was amazing
If the whimsy of "Bonjour Tristesse" met and mated the malignant magic from "The Secret History" this would be their child. This Gen-Nexter novel holds the pulse of the zeitgeist under its overachieving, overintelligent finger and lets it be known: this is the novel for our generation, for the eager me!me!&onlyme!s. The heroine is such a brat, the reader oftens remembers past characters like these: uberegotist humanoids--selfish to the extreme, and SMILES--here is their side of the story ...more
Oct 02, 2007 Rory rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: apparently, anyone who isn't me
Shelves: gave-up-on
i didn't really read this. i read about 30 pages before announcing (to the book's cover), "I HATE YOU, BOOK. SHUT UP!" anyone who wants more details as to why i despise the book that everyone else is raving about might need to buy me a drink first.
My initial interest in this book was mainly down to the fact that I had read numerous reviews comparing it to Donna Tartt's The Secret History, one of my favourite novels of all time. Having finished it, I can now say with confidence that these comparisons are fairly inaccurate and really quite lazy. The obvious similarity between the books is that both concern an elite group of young people in an academic setting (in this case, a much-admired clique known as the 'Bluebloods' in an American high ...more
Dec 10, 2008 Susan rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fiction-adult
This may be the best book I've read all year, which isn't to say it's perfect. In fact, there are about a million reasons to hate it that most of my fellow reviewers have already touched upon: the gorgeous young It Girl-looking author for one, or the denseness of the writing (some have called it overwritten), the pretentiousness of it all. And yet, for sheer impact, I don't think I could come up with a single thing to top it. This book really gets in your head and doesn't leave it the same ...more
May 17, 2007 nina rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I read several good reviews of this book, but none of them said that it was a blatant rip-off of Donna Tartt's "The Secret History". It's about a teenager and her not-quite successful academic father. Now, I'm the daughter of a not-quite successful academic father, so I'm a good judge of the territory, and this just doesn't make the grade. The stylistic tic adopted by the narrator is to copiously footnote her story with real and imaginary books. However, she doesn't footnote correctly, and I ...more
Jul 11, 2008 Gwenn rated it did not like it
several people I know and like loved this book. I'm about halfway through and I hate it so far. it's sooo wes andersonish, a tale of WASPS who think they're clever (and are, too clever by half!) it's filled with nice words, and some of them are put together well, but I really don't see the big deal. except, oh right-the author is young, and goodlooking. the cover is eye-catching. Did I mention I hate it? I might even have to stop reading (if I could, I'd italicize that.) I almost never give up ...more
Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a puzzle, a Rubik's Cube of a story created by Puzzlemaster Marisha Pessl. You receive all the information needed to solve the puzzle throughout your reading, but it's not until the end, when each side of the cube is perfectly constructed, that you see the Blinding Truth.

The sides of Pessl's Cube aren't basic colors. Instead of fashioning rows and columns of nine small blue squares on one side, nine yellow squares on another, nine red, nine green, nine oran
Clif Hostetler
Feb 05, 2016 Clif Hostetler rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: mystery
This book wins my prize for creative writing. I said creative, not good. The novel is bursting with the passion of brilliant young minds pursuing a liberal arts education. That part is good. However, the word play is overdone to such an extreme that it hinders communication of the story to the reader. But it is the author's word craft that makes this book unique and interesting.

Oh, and did I mention that this book has nothing to do with that branch of science called physics? This is a novel, not
Jul 25, 2013 Miranda rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: No one, not even genocidal maniacs or serial killers
Shelves: 2013
I waited a long time to read this book - years, in fact. I was more curious than I was excited, but I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
Ultimately, I was not just disappointed. I was MAD.

Here, as I explained them to a friend, are the key issues with this book:

1) Every single sentence is overwrought and overstuffed with a pretentious, stilted, stupid simile (CONFIDENTIAL TO MARISHA PESSL: There are, in fact, literary devices other than similes; I just employed one called "alliteration"
Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist"
I listened to the audio book. Had I been reading the print version, there would have been NO CHANCE of my staying with it all the way to the end.
Possible alternate title: Special Practice With Obnoxious Similes
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Marisha Pessl grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, and now lives in New York City. Special Topics in Calamity Physics, her debut novel, was a bestseller in both hardcover and paperback. It won the 2006 John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize (now the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize), and was selected as one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by The New York Times Book Review. Her ...more
More about Marisha Pessl...

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“Always live your life with your biography in mind.” 93 likes
“But most critically, sweet, never try to change the narrative structure of someone else's story, though you will certainly be tempted to, as you watch those poor souls in school, in life, heading unwittingly down dangerous tangents, fatal digressions from which they will unlikely be able to emerge. Resist the temptation. Spend your energies on your story. Reworking it. Making it better.” 80 likes
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