A darkly funny coming-of-age novel and a richly plotted suspense tale told through the distinctive voice of its heroine, Blue van Meer. After a childhood moving from one academic outpost to another with her father (a man prone to aphorisms and meteoric affairs), Blue is clever, deadpan, and possessed of a vast lexicon of literary, political, philosophical, and scientific knowledge--and is quite the cinéaste to boot. In her final year of high school at the élite (and unusual) St. Gallway School in Stockton, North Carolina, Blue falls in with a charismatic group of friends and their captivating teacher, Hannah Schneider. But when the drowning of one of Hannah's friends and the shocking death of Hannah herself lead to a confluence of mysteries, Blue is left to make sense of it all with only her gimlet-eyed instincts and cultural references to guide--or misguide--her.--From publisher description.
Reviewers compared Ms Pessl to Vladimir Nabokov. I have read Nabokov, I love Nabokov. Marisha Pessl is no Nabokov. Americans do subtleness badly (Similar to the American trouble of distinguishing nudity, erotica and pornography.). The highwire act of erudition hints but does not reveal. Borges and Nabokov layer their works with allusions and references few will and are expected to detect. Such a game of intellectual snobbery is not well liked in "everybody must have prizes" America. The sorry state of education in America deprives many of the knowledge and skill to notice and play the game. Thus, this erudtion imposter novel is declared Nabokovian by reviewers.
In the game of erudition, a tiny bit of ignorance guarantees a deep fall. Ms Pessl falls often. Had she (or her lazy editors) paid any attention in philosophy they must have known that Socrates talked but did not author a text. All we know about and of him was written by his students and admirers ... Zürich is a Protestant town, so no nuns educating little Gareth (a strange naming choice for a Swiss boy, btw) ... They are called Nielsen not Neilsen ratings ... Listing all her mistakes could fill a Cliff Notes booklet by itself. The book's professor daddy must be a miserable hack if he did not correct the daughter's mistaken idea that a machine gun citation style is to be encouraged. In our times of search engines, adding footnotes is monkey's work. A good citation discusses, reflects and builds on the cited thesis. If a cite does not add value or street cred, cut it out. At 300 to 400 pages, this could have been a great book.
It is hard for me to say exactly why I found myself loving it so much. The easy answer, of course, for someone who reads every mystery book she can get her hands in, is the mystery aspect. The twists and turns of this book are plentiful, always gripping, always fascinating, and always, always a surprise. I honestly never guessed what was coming next at any point in the book.
There is also the referential aspect of the work. The book constantly mentions and even cites other works of literature and art, something that thrilled this former English major.
And for once, even though this was a book where so many of the characters could be classified as "obnoxious", it worked in the book's favor. I didn't need to like all of the main characters-in fact, it didn't seem I was supposed to. In this, it reminded me of the Spellman series, where even though some of the characters may drive me crazy, that only adds to the book and makes me want to read more.
This is one of those rare novels where it could have kept going and going, and I would have kept reading every word.
This -- this is what passes for writing? That such a book could be published -- fine. Bad books, inept books, flawed books get published all the time. But how can it be that metacritic.com lists not one single negative review? How can such a piece of dreck be so universally lauded? And if this is the state of literature today, how can I go on writing?
The sad thing is, this book didn't have to be bad. All it needed was either A) an author with a smidgeon of humility and self-restraint, or B) a capable editor. Obviously, it had neither, and this is a tragedy.
Approximately 50% of Pessl's metaphors were original, insightful, and apt. Unfortunately, the other 50% were so completely ludicrous they made my skin crawl. They needed to be cut. There were also huge chunks of the story that contributed practically nothing to plot or characterization, and were wholly self-indulgent. These also should have been cut.
And finally, because I am horribly petty, here's an incomplete list of words and phrases Ms. Pessl and her editors (and, I might add, her breathless reviewers) should immediately look up in a dictionary:
It's a (fake) autobiography that ends up mainly focusing on the main character's (her name is Blue! I love it! but then, my nickname on several forums is Blue, so I have an affinity for that name) senior year in high school, but is more interesting than that might imply. Nearly every paragraph includes a reference to some book, quotes from books (referenced, of course), etc., which was, as one Amazon reviewer said, "the author...having some exuberant fun with her big words, quotations and references". It did go a little overboard from time to time, but overall I found it an entertaining look into how someone who's read (and retained) that many books might think. I know that I sometimes compare the world around me to books I've read and movies I've seen, so perhaps that's part of why I related to Blue.
Catching the eye of the Intro to Film teacher Hannah Schneider, she is invited to join an exclusive group of students who meet at Hannah’s house, in a situation remenicent of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History – except that these students are not the intellectual elites of the school but the social elites.
Then suddenly, three fourths of the way through the book, a weird twist occurs and the book suddenly becomes a mystery. It is very jarring, which was probably intentional, and I can see why this has gotten some negative reviews, though a one-word “AWFUL” is not a very valid criticism of a 500 page book.
Blue will often give references for a quote, situation, turn of phrase or concept. “In that instant, the dining room became nail-bitingly unbearable (see Midday Face-Off at Sioux Falls: A Mohave Dan Western, Lone Star Publishers, Bendley, 1992)”. Sometimes, the books referenced are facetiously related to the text, and in other cases the books appear to be completely made up.
This is the only unconventional device used (aside from the Final Exam, I guess), which disappointed me a bit. Between the title of the book and the style of the cover and blurb, I was expecting something a bit more postmodern.
If you enjoyed Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, you’ll probably like this book.
It's at St. Gallway that Blue's dedication to her pompous, theory-spouting father begins to waver. Her attention is diverted by the school's most glamorous figures, a clique of five flighty kids called the Bluebloods who meet every Sunday night for dinner at the home of their mentor, Hannah Schneider, a charismatic film teacher.”(Washington Post, 2007).
It is not often that a book gets to me the way this one did. A few days into the reading I had a dream about the characters; this is how much I identified with Pessl’s book (yes this how her last name is spelled). The main character Blue Van Meer (I love this name!) and her father Garth remind me of my best friend in high school and her father (though they did not travel, rather her dad attracted many people to his world). Garth Van Meer is a laid back political professor who thinks rather highly of himself but has little regard for other people’s feelings, especially the women who come and go. Blue calls these women June Bugs as they are attracted to her father like a bug to a flame, and like bugs and flame, nothing good comes to these women. My friend Heidi’s dad would date women for sex, but when they wanted more he pushed them away without a thought about the feelings of these women. Garth Van Meer does the same.
The book takes place during Blue’s senior year at a preppy high school, and like many teens finds herself drawn to a group of her peers while pulling away from her dad. Reading the novel as Blue starts to see her dad in a new light just as she starts to rebel, got me thinking about the relationship between parent and child. It seems to me no matter how well we think we have raised our kids, they can be highly influenced by their peers. Years of careful parenting can be thrown out the window if our children fall under the spell of other kids. At some point in our relationship our children will stop seeing us as mom or dad and start seeing us as humans. This change can sometimes be painful, for Blue it is shattering.
The charismatic teacher Hannah Schneider seems at first to be the tragic figure in the novel, the reader is told in the beginning that she is found hanging from a tree. The story is about the events that led up to this suicide (or was it?). Again, it seems Hannah is the tragic figure, but as the book unfolds it becomes clear all the characters are tragic or damaged in some way.
Pessl manages to make five spoiled preppy teens sympathetic, though not always likable, not an easy task and not one that many first time writers can pull off. I never really cared about them, but I did understand them so what ends up happening makes their response believable. What is not believable is the final plot scenario. It is not that Pessl writes a twist; rather she brings the reader in a secret that is not only unbelievable, but leaves the reader asking questions. There are a couple of serious plot holes that make the ending feel forced and drags the book down. The other thing that drags the book down is Pessl incessant use of footnotes in the text (see redundant in any dictionary). At first the footnotes drive Pessl’s description but after awhile they start to wear on the reader and become a distraction.
This is Pessl’s first novel and though I had problems with the plot and her writing style I do hope she writes more books, minus the footnotes in quotations. I would not hesitate to read another by her. After all, it is not often I dream about fictional characters.
If this book, then, is the next, more advanced step for the kids weaned on Speak and Gossip Girl, this book seems a lot more appropriate, at least in terms of the flat characters, the ultra-hip language and overly ambitious metaphors, the know-it-all aspect of the main character and her quirky citation gimmick, and the reliance on cliques and their issues to carry the story.
The post YA-approach makes a lot of this book more palatable than it would be otherwise, but it does not address all of the issues I have with this work. It is too long and fails to justify its length. The first three hundred pages ring of Cruel Intentions, but that seductive naughtiness is abandoned for a mystery-revelation ending that seems incongruously innocent and tacked on.
Overall, the book was an enjoyable read that kept me up far past bedtime on several occasions. It featured several creative flourishes that were entertaining (even the quiz at the end, cheesy as it was, was a unique way to add a little denouement.) This is the type of book I'd recommend to the right person.
I tore through it this weekend, I suspect I'm going to need to go back and read it again because even at the time I knew I was going too quickly, but it was that kind of a page-turner. Blue, the daughter of an eccentric professor who won't stay at a college for more than a semester, gets involved with an exclusive-yet-a-little-nuts clique during her senior year at her new prep school. Poor motherless Blue is pulled in about a million different directions by the various strong personalities of the students in the group, not to mention the dramatic and glamorous teacher who is its ringleader. It's one of those books where Incidents happen, and then there is Intrigue and later, Investigation. It's a very, very, very good and satisfyingly complex story. Some plot elements are a bit on the absurdist side, and yet they don't take away from the accuracy of the painful cringiness of high school.
Recommended: Very much to people who like intricate plots, high drama, and cautionary tales of Clever People Behaving Badly.
Most interestingly the story is both a coming of age type story and a mystery. It kind of starts like a coming of age story (secluded brainy teen girl makes friends for the first time, finds out stuff about her families past, etc.) but the mystery takes over about halfway through and the coming of age takes a turn for the worse. Dark secrets and a few traumatic events invade the story and reshape the character in a way that you fully don't see coming until they hit you upside the head toward the end. Brilliantly done.
The main character, Blue, is the daughter of a pretentious poli-sci professor father who changes universities every three months. He's like a permanent visiting professor. For this reason, Blue has a very limited experience of life; no friends, just her dad and her books. It's like she's living through the words of her father and the words of the many authors that she is so familiar with it's scary. She relates everything she experiences to something she's read. The majority of the book takes place in her senior year of high school; her dad decides that senior year is important enough to stay in spot for the entire year (he wants her to be valedictorian, which you can't be if you've only been at a school for three months). I don't want to give away too much, so I'll just say that she has several experiences that completely change her world in an unexpected way.
I don't think I've really done justice to the book with this review. It's just so hard to explain why I liked it. It's one of those character books, I think. I just really liked Blue. Anyway, highly recommend it (especially if you are a character reader).
This is a childish bunch of words giddily thrown together like a teen-aged girl's nonstop verbal romp. And a bumpy romp it is, what with her encyclopedia's worth of book references in there every several narrative paragraphs. But not to take the references all that seriously, even when the ones that purport to be real are included, including (ESPECIALLY including) that precious one about her devouring the words of Mein Kampf by "the severe German chancellor." That's ALL she has to say about Hitler, who was not chancellor when he wrote it but in prison for the abortive Munich Beer Hall Putsch? And the illustrations that "she did herself"? Juvenile; worthy, maybe, of an 8th-grade poster.
I finally asked myself what I was doing spending time on this and
put it down, a long way from the finish.
Having said that, this is clearly a flawed novel. This is the story of Blue Van Meer, the teennager daughter of a narcissist, who is on a fast track to becoming one, and who arrives at a new school and manages to make the first friends in her life who are, surprise, suprise... a bunch of narcissists themselves! While Blue oscillates between being endearing and irritating (we can sense there is still hope for her, if only she could get away from her dad and her friends and meet some normal people), this is not the case with the other characters. I am very interested in narcissism myself, having suffered some narcissistic people in my life, and it did feel like Pessl knew what she was talking about, although it seemd a bit of an overkill that so many characters were narcissistic, or that Blue's father has such obvious grandiosity delusions.
The story is narrated by Blue, including references to books, movies, about 132.758 comparisions, which are beautiful in themselves but overwhelming when you find one every couple of lines. This could be a stroke of genius on Pessl's part, as this is exactly the kind of book that overachieving Blue Van Meer would write, but I'm left with the feeling that the case is that Blue and Pessl are not so different. After two thirds of the book I just started skimming (and I do love dense books, books with footnotes, experimental literature, etc.). Please, as talented as you may be: less is more.
Another problem is that the book goes from being a coming of age tale to a murder mister 3/4 into the story. You can do coming of age, you can do mistery, you could even do both if it was clear from the beginning, but you cannot switcha near the end of the book without seriously annoying the reader. Having said that, you can trace breadcrumbs that Pessl left along the book that fit into the mistery, and yet, the switch didn't work for me and I was left wondering why on Earth had Hanna Schneider spent her weekends cooking for the Bluebloods. I know one answer is "for the attention" but really? couldn't she find nicer people?
The book ends with an exam, which suggests possible explanations and tries to wrap up the loose ends. I found this extremely irritating. I do undestrand that the book is written as an essay, is about a star student, everything revolves around academia and education, etc.etc.etc. but:
1.- I can understand the ending or make my own explanation without the author having to spell everything out.
2.- If a writer thinks that the novel is not self-explanatory, he or she should rework the novel, not add an explanation at the end
3.- An exam? Really??
But I can't honestly recommend it.
It's not that it sprawls a bit (it does), or that it's badly editied & proofread (it is), that's not enough to throw me off a writer this entertaining: it's that there are structural problems with trying to tell this particular story via a 16-year-old narrator, and some of those problems are badly solved. One can tell the author was hampered by the narrator because the adult characters in the book are so distinctly drawn and articulate.
Within the first couple of chapters we're warned it's going to be a murder mystery -- I'm not sure why some people found the "sudden turn" jarring -- but there were several places where a detail in the narrative shouts "I'm random and obtrusive so I must be here to set up the denouement."
It's important, in assessing novels, not to be impressed by knowledge and allusions. The allusions and citations in this book are sometimes clever but mainly pedestrian. Erudition, even real erudition, never makes a novel, even for Elias Canetti.
Pessl is not a particularly knowledgeable person; she's more a product of her undergraduate university education, swimming in a soup of half-digested half-popular knowledge, in the same way as the author and screenwriter of "Watchmen." Without the tricks, there is only the psychology, which belongs squarely in the genre of high school writing, where the most important thing is whether or not you're accepted into certain social groups.
Blue’s senior year of high school has her being drawn awkwardly into the clique composed of Jade, Leulah, Charles, Nigel and (the oh-so-desirable) Miles as well as well as their enigmatic mentor, the college teacher Hannah Schneider. Never entirely comfortable, either with this group of teenagers or with Ms. Schneider, Blue tries to figure out what the glue is that holds these individuals together. As Blue begins to figure things out, she is never quite sure if she and her dad are working and thinking in tandem or as polar opposites. Ultimately, this turns story out to be a challenging but gratifying read.
I agree with one reviewer who said: "The laborious process of reading this book felt like 514 pages of a precocious child shrieking, 'Aren't I clever?' into my face, only they were pronouncing clever incorrectly because they were not, in fact, very bright, and also projecting spittle into my face every single time." Except, kudos to that reviewer for finishing. I made it only half way. There are some riveting sections here and there, and the premise is great. So many other readers found this novel brilliant and were enamored with the writing style. BUT...I just couldn't move past the main character without entertaining homicidal thoughts. Yeah, it was that bad for me.
For a good, brainy mystery steeped in academia and the antics of blue bloods-behaving-badly, stick with Donna Tartt's The Secret History.