By all accounts, I should have loved this book. I should have felt welcomed into the elite club of people who got it. After all, I have read a good number of books referenced in the table of contents--in which each chapter title is the title of a different book-- and I even got some of the more subtle allusions in the book itself.

Further, I recognized the main characters immediately. I was one of a small, self-important group of high school kids centered around an English teacher: he had us over once a week, every week for a non-school sanctioned writing workshop. There, we worshiped him, that flawed, snuff sniffing English professor with a daughter 
in our grade. There, and in the hallways of school, where he would nod in recognition, snuff falling onto the floor, we waited for his praise and floated on it when it came. But, we slowly noticed how flawed he was, how maybe he was homophobic, totally unhelpful to some of our crowd and the confessions of their poetry, how maybe he was more than a little arrogant, eager to talk about himself just as we began to talk about the luminaries we intended to study under in college.

So, when Blue Van Meer, the protagonist of Special Topics In Calamity Physics expressed skepticism about her and her friends relationship with Hannah Schneider the film teacher -- you know from the first few pages that Schneider ends up dead but there is other, more subtle concerns that arise first--I was already there, already skeptical of the thirst with which the students approached their evenings at their high school teacher's house.

The story centers around Blue, a precocious 16-year-old who is a senior in high school. For the first time since her mother died--when Blue was in preschool--she is spending an entire year in one school instead of traveling the world with her professor, hear-throb father.  There, in the snotty sounding school she slowly becomes friends with a group of  kids who introduce her to smoking and drinking and sex, a group of friends who in their less-rebellious evenings hang out with their film teacher who allows them to feel like part of an elite club--indeed their classmates refer to them as the "Bluebloods." 

It is, in many ways, a coming of age story with Blue, who narrates, ever-eager to show off her knowledge by citing books and articles she has read under her father's tutelage, but still ready to go through classic teenage rebellion. At the same time, it is a mystery story -- not the mystery of Schneider's death, mentioned in the prologue and dealt with in the last third of the book--but the mystery of Schneider herself: who she is, why she has taken these kids into her home but will not let them into her personal life, which they try desperately to decipher.

 As a coming of age story that breaks the mold, this book succeeds.  As a stunning, original, debut novel embracing post-modern hyper awareness, it falls flat. 

Despite the fantastical parts of the book, I should have felt welcomed in, absorbed by the book and by the secrets I shared with Blue and her idiosyncratic father (who, in retrospect, is in many ways more similar to my high school teacher than Schneider is) .

But I wasn't. Sure, I read all 500 pages in less than a week, so clearly I found the book gripping. But I wanted to attack it with a red pen. As I was reading it, I kept going back to a quote I could only remember partially, but have since looked up: "Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made." ~ Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898)

Novels, too, are like sausages, and the gimmick--for it never stopped feeling like a gimmick--of sighting passages from books complete with proper parenthetical citations made me feel like the inner workings of the book were on display.

That feeling was heightened in passages that seemed to have to much fun with the word play or with the form -follows content. There are paragraphs that use the same turn of phrase one too many times, and Blue's musings about philosophy or about something she had once heard her father say, are clearly meant to convey the lengths of pauses in conversations and thought processes, but end up feeling contrived.

Laying out these elements--things that went into the research of the book (citing Web sites in the book is particularly distracting), and the conscious form-follows-content writing--also seemed to make the outlining of the plot come too clearly into focus. It was clear to me when there were sentences written that the author, Marisha Pessl, knew would be revisited later, I could see the pages of character sketches that she referred to as she wrote. I felt that she was at once demanding too much and not enough from the reader.

The plot was fun, gripping and intriguing, the characters interesting, if slightly underdeveloped (at some points I felt like I was reading a more intellectual and darker version of Prep). But, at the end of the day, I wish an editor had said to Pessl , "good try. Go home, kill your darlings and come back." (Clearly, I am also not immune to the allusion.  kill your darlings is supposedly Faulkner's advice about writing.) 

The book was an magnificently fun read, like a grown up, literary Nancy Drew, but I wish Pessl would have let her readers be enveloped by the story instead of forcing them to watch how it was made. An editor brave enough to tell her to restrain herself a bit would have done Pessl a lot of good. In the meantime, I hold out high hopes for her later books, when she feels less need to show off what she learned in school.

0 Responses to 'From My Bookshelf: Special Topics In Calamity Physics'

Search This Blog

Contact Me

Written Pyramids is a blog written by a journalist living and working in Washington D.C.

I have left my real name off of the blog so as not to imply that the blog is somehow linked with the journalism I get paid to do. (Still, I never write about my beat on this blog, and rarely express opinions about the day's news regardless of its relationship to my beat).

I would love to hear from you. If you want to contact me directly rather than leaving a comment here, I can be reached at

Blog Archive

Books pyramid image originally from the British website, Explore Writing.