El's Reviews > Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
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Sep 17, 2007

it was ok
bookshelves: 21st-centurylit, peer-pressure, young-adult-n-kids
Read in September, 2007

Blue van Meer is a smart high school student on her way to Harvard who has spent most of her life alone with her father after a tragic accident took her mother's life early in Blue's childhood. Her father, a professor of political science, moves across the country to teach at small colleges for short periods of time, allowing Blue the opportunity to grow up as somewhat of a vagabond. By the time they reach the destination of which the book is about, Blue is unlike most kids her age. Her life has been spent in one town after another with only her father and his lectures as the remaining constant. She seems wise beyond her years having read a variety of different books likely found boring by her contemporaries - or the contemporaries of her father, for that matter.

The book is Blue's somewhat lengthy memory of the year that "changed her life", the introduction to a teacher who "made a difference" and a small group of tight-knit friends who were aloof, exclusive and downright snotty. This is acceptance (or something vaguely resembling acceptance by a girl who had never known such a thing in her life) is what ultimately makes the girl fall and break into a million little pieces. There is an underlying mystery that appears on page one, rears its head throughout the 500+ pages and sort of comes to a wrap near the end.

I am equally fascinated by and disgusted with young up-and-coming writers who appear out of the blue with this huge novel that sits on bestseller lists for months or years, with claims that it is "fresh" and "original" and "groundbreaking". This book is not quite any of the above; rather it pays homage (most likely unconsciously) to previous books like Donna Tartt's The Secret History or (god-save-you Marisha Pessl) The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Young Pessl constructs each chapter around the title of a classic work (ie, Moby Dick - a chapter in which a large man drowns in a pool; The Woman in White - in which Blue and her father are first confronted by the "fabulous" Hannah Schneider, the teacher that changes Blue's life for better or worse, etc. - a technique that sort of lends itself to be somewhat interesting) and the pages are filled with references and footnotes and rather pretentious ramblings.

The writing itself is not horrible, but smells of creative writing workshops (very unlikely the Iowa Writer's Workshop). The story was unbelievable in a setting that tried to feel like it could be believable, with characters the writer perhaps knew - but most likely characters the writer wished she had known. Sadly.

I wanted to like it. I tried hard to like it. I thought about it long after in order to force myself to like it. While it will stick in my head for a long time, it is most comparable to a Backstreet Boys song that won't leave my mind. And I blame James Joyce for it, and Dave Eggers for making it seem like Joyce was qualified.
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