Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
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Jul 27, 08

bookshelves: fiction, mystery-suspense, 2007, not-worth-it
Read in June, 2007

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 charismatic group of friends at St. Gallway (see page 2, "wild, wayward youths," Everyman Parenting) and their captivating teacher, Hannah Schneider. A sudden drowning, a series of inexplicable events, and finally the shocking death of Hannah herself lead to a confluence of mysteries. And Blue is left to make sense of it all with only her gimlet-eyed instinct and cultural lexicon to guide her.

As usual, it's pretty vague, so I'll just expand on a few of those points: "unusual past" probably refers to her upbringing: dragged around the country by her dad, a university professor specialising in civil wars, whose idea of fun driving games is to get his daughter to memorise The Waste Land or recite essays. Her dad is extremely opinionated, in that my-word-is-the-only-truth kind of way, and Blue regurgitates him line for line, word for word, throughout the book. The very first line begins with "Dad always said...", something that pops up in one grammatical form or another on every bloody page, sometimes more than once.

Her mother, Natasha, is dead (her car hit a tree when Blue was about 5), leaving her only child in the hands of a self-obsessed, womanising, pedantic, obnoxious prat - at least, that was how I saw him. Several other characters comment on how Blue talks about nothing but her dad, and I have to say, that doesn't do Blue any favours as a Sympathetic Main Character.

By "her highly unusual past draws her to a charismatic group of friends..." Well, I can't say what "draws" her to them - except that I didn't get the sense that there was this connection from her point of view, it was all Hannah's doing - because that would be giving something away, but the group wasn't very charismatic. I didn't buy them. They were a boring bunch, elevated to the status of "Bluebloods" (meant to be ironic?) by the other students at the school, simply by being constantly gossiped about. YAWN. More irritation. What didn't fit for me was that, with all Blue's intelligence, why would she hang out with them? They were so mean to her, all the time. That in itself would actually make for an interesting story, but it's never really explained or delved into. I know, I remember, it's easy to get stuck in shitty friendships-that-aren't, like you can get stuck in a relationship that just makes you miserable. But still.

Blue analyses and references everything - and I mean everything, she can't get through a description of someone putting on their coat without getting sidetracked into personality type and simile. Sometimes even with footnotes. It was interesting at first - Messl has a way with words, certainly, and Blue's voice doesn't flag for the entire 514 pages - but by page 400 I was getting pretty impatient and started skimming all the asides, tangents, diversions, pit stops, drive-throughs, excursions that constitute the majority of the book. Take them all out, and you've got maybe 200 pages of rather strange mystery book. The blurb itself contains an example of her "referencing" style, which was an interesting literary device, using the titles or made-up books or their equally fictional chapters to describe a person's attitude or emotion etc.

The references themselves are deceptive. Some are real, obviously so, but the majority appear to be fabricated. I say "appear", because you never know, but out of curiosity I tried looking for some of them, even a poet she quotes, but no luck. If it's not on the internet...

As for the plot, it totally did not go where I was expecting. I thought it would be harmless enough, and mostly at face value - I believed in Hannah's depression precisely because Blue ignored it, I thought the photos of the little girl in Hannah's bedroom were of Hannah's child, dead or lost, because it never occured to Blue, and this seemed even more plausible when articles about disappearing children are found in Hannah's garage. And I believed she had committed suicide.

But no, it's far more complicated than that, and all the clues are in the story (and in the tiresome daddy and Hannah quotes), if you have enough patience to wade through it all over again, which you just might, cause it all seems so ... bloated. Far-fetched, yes, but like they say, the more farfetched, the more plausible it really is. I don't know who says that, but it goes something like that I think. And the ending, that I really didn't expect. But I was right about her dad.

If I was really clever, or wanted to appear really clever, I'd have written this in the same style, just to show-off, y'know. But that would be really wanky, and one Blue is more than enough. To give you a taste, this is what the book is like as a reading experience:

Dad always paused here for dramatic effect, staring across the room at the trite little daisy landscape hanging on the wall, or the pattern of horse heads and riding crops running up and down the faded dining room wallpaper. Dad adored all Suspensions and Silences, so he could feel everyone's eyes madly running all over his face like Mongol armies in 1215 sacking Beijing.

That one wasn't too bad - certainly very visually stimulating; I'm building up...
She pressed PLAY on the answering maching ("You have no new messages") and squinted at June Bug Dorthea Driser's ugly cross-stich quotations hanging in rows along the wall by the telephone ("Love Thy Neighbor," "To Thine Own Self Be True").

Try this one: If this narrative were a quotidian account of the history of Russia, this chapter would be a proletarian's account of the Great October Soviet Socialist Revolution of 1917, if a history of France, the beheading of Marie Antoinette, if a chronicle of America, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth.

It's not that it isn't new, or even clever, 'cause it is. It's that it gets so tiresome, with little happening in-between long, long pages (I know I've said "long, long pages" in previous reviews, so I guess I'm not keen on them), of introspective meanderings and quotes of Almighty Dad which just show that Blue isn't the independent free-thinker that she thinks she is. This one took me way too long to read, and, as if often the case, the more Blue analysed and delved and contemplated and rehashed, the more distanced and estranged I felt.

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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Martine (new) - added it

Martine I've had this book sitting on a shelf for a while now, but the more reviews I read, the less inclined I feel to read it. You certainly make it sound very tiresome. Hmmm.


Shannon (Giraffe Days) Sorry! And yet, I'm not that sorry! Except that you've already bought a copy... for that I'm sorry :) But then, I had such hopes for this book.


message 3: by Martine (new) - added it

Martine So did I! I bought it because reviewers compared it to Donna Tartt's Secret History, which I love. The stupid thing is that I actually looked at the book before I bought it, established that it wasn't at all like The Secret History, noted that the writing style was rather tiresome, and bought it, anyway. I feel so stupid now...

Oh, well. I'll give it a fair shake, at some point in a not-so-near future.


Shannon (Giraffe Days) It's not one to rush ;)


Nosocialize Bloated is a great word. I'm 2/3rds through this and I'm just so bored.


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