Special Topics in Calamity Physics

by Marisha Pessl

Hardcover, 2006




Viking, (2006)


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.… (more)

Media reviews

Her exhilarating synthesis of the classic and the modern, frivolity and fate — “Pnin” meets “The O.C.” — is a poetic act of will. Never mind jealous detractors: virtuosity is its own reward. And this skylarking book will leave readers salivating for more.

User reviews

LibraryThing member jcbrunner
This severely overhyped first novel about a Veronica-Marsy daddy daughter combo suffers from a lack of editorship and a calamity in pink cover. Until the murder mystery kicks in around page 400, it's a slog through a mess of adjectives, false similes and Cliff Notes erudition. A little less hype and a little more work could have produced a real winner.

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.
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LibraryThing member george.d.ross
This book makes me want to cry.

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:

in lieu
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LibraryThing member princemuchao
Blue, our first-person protagonist, is a precocious teenage girl whose mother died when she was five. Living alone with her father, an intellectual professor who now prefers many short and meaningless relationships to another life partnership, she attends dozens of schools as they flit about the country until her last year of high school, when they settle in North Carolina for the entire school year.

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.
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LibraryThing member seasonsoflove
From what I had heard about this book before I started it, people either love it or hate it. It even divided my usually literary like-minded father and I, with him not enjoying it, while I quickly ranked it one of my favorite books of the new year.

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.
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LibraryThing member fiveforsilver
I really liked this book. I really liked this book. I liked the style, the writing, the characters - particularly the main character. I like the fact that two, maybe even three, times in this book, I was completely surprised or shocked by something that occurred. That doesn't often happen; most new books I've read recently, even the most convoluted, didn't surprise me all that much (or, in the unlikely event there was something I found surprising, I didn't care enough to feel anything).

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.
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LibraryThing member Sarij
“As a Harvard freshman recounting the events of the previous year, when her childhood "unstitched like a snagged sweater," Blue remembers being thoroughly in thrall to her father, a political science professor who changes jobs at third-tier colleges so frequently that by age 16 she's attended 24 different schools. To compensate for this rootlessness (her lepidopterist mom died in a car crash when Blue was 5), Dad has promised his daughter an undisturbed senior year in the North Carolina mountain town of Stockton, where Blue will attend the ultra-preppy St. Gallway School.
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.
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LibraryThing member eras
There are quite a few critical reviews of this book, but I contend those that had such terrible problems with STICP were not viewing it through the right lens. I would describe this as a post-YA book. It follows all of the conventions - it takes place during a school year, it is preoccupied with social and acceptance issues, and most of the characters are simple high school stereotypes, not developed real people.

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.
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LibraryThing member delphica
(#39 in the 2007 book challenge)

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.

Grade: A
Recommended: Very much to people who like intricate plots, high drama, and cautionary tales of Clever People Behaving Badly.
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LibraryThing member gendeg
Abandon ship! Abandon ship! Sorry, I couldn't take it anymore, the narrator droning on and on in that preternaturally precocious tone of hers. Over-wrought writing. Pessl's narrator makes constant writing-clogging literary and cultural references. It's just the epitome of literary writing gone bad. It strains, it over-preens.

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.
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LibraryThing member Phantasma
This was a completely overhyped piece of junk. It wasn't so horrible that I wanted to toss it across the room, but it was close. The author is way too pleased with herself and not quite as intelligent as she thinks she is. The writing was stilted and awkward. I felt like I was driving a car with no shocks down a gravel road. The author seems to think "why use one sentence when I can use 20 pages to convey the same idea?" This was a waste of my time. But the idea was cool, sort of.… (more)
LibraryThing member JulieCarter
I really enjoyed this book. I can certainly see why people would not, though. The conceits, the precociousness (precocity?) of Blue, the many, many literary and other references....sure, I can see why some would get tired of it. I really didn't, though. I enjoyed it the whole way through. I would probably have to disagree with the critics who raved over Pessl's prose, because some of it was confusing, some of it was ridiculously heavy-handed, and some of it was just silly. I had the feeling that the editor got tired towards the end, because I noticed several sentences with a missing "is" or something similar, and because the similes seemed to multiply in the last 30 pages. But, if you look past some of the silliness and frippery, it was a novel I couldn't put down. And maybe I fell prey to Pessl's flattery that I could catch most of her literary allusions. What a fun read!… (more)
LibraryThing member grunin
I enjoyed this, and the author shows great promise. It's intelligent, witty, and the author creates powerful moods. About halfway through this hefty tome I gave up on everything else and read the rest in one sitting, foregoing sleep.

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."
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LibraryThing member tibobi
I can't go too deeply into the plot without giving things away so I will focus on how I felt when I read this. Prior to my group selecting this, I knew nothing about it. I had no idea what to expect at all but I was pleasantly surprised after the first few chapters. There are many references to the "core curriculum" and as you can imagine... core curriculum for college prep includes the reading of some well known literature. Each chapter relates to the literature she is currently reading, or has recently read. I was fascinated with this aspect of the book.

Blue is a complicated character. She is often at odds with her intellect. Wanting desperately to fit in yet constantly aware that she is surrounded by those less intelligent than her. Every interaction is met with her own internal commentary on the situation. Her nicknames for people, the references she makes about people, etc. Much of this I found to be quite humorous.

Her father's banter, also a source of entertainment, made me even more curious about him. In the beginning I was charmed by their relationship. It was clear that he was dragging around an unwilling participant, but it was also clear that she realized her role in his little adventures and went along with them.. for the most part.

The other characters in the book were not as interesting and I often questioned their placement in the book. Hannah, the teacher that befriends Blue is like a torn flag, flapping in the wind. You want to take her down, smooth her out... do something with her but I didn't get a good feel for who she was and what she wanted in life. The students that Blue hangs out with, were interesting as a whole, but not as individuals. I wonder if that was the author's point.

Overall, I felt the book was long. Very long. Over 500 pages with the story getting interesting at around page 300. When we discussed it as a group, no one seemed to have issues with the open ended quality of the storyline. I thought that was interesting. Its cleverness seemed to outweigh anything else. We also did not expect this to be a mystery of sorts.

If I can make one suggestion to you, it would be to give yourself plenty of time to read this. I did not pace myself properly and ended up rushing towards the end in order to finish it in time for my meeting. Spread it out over a few weeks if possible. There is just so much going on and so many details to pay attention to.
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LibraryThing member mmignano11
I think STICP has been and will be appreciated and enjoyed by many readers. I, however, found that the book dragged. I found the references and foot-notes, both real and imagined, only served the purpose intended by the author infrequently, if her purpose was to entertain and educate. I felt that the flow of the story was interrupted by the many side-bars taken by Blue, the narrator and main character. Blue and her father, Gareth, (one of Pessl's more interesting characters) settle down, after years of traveling due to Gareth's colorful and inconsistent methods of teaching. Blue is befriended by her teacher, Hannah Schneider and a group of students who consider themselves special. They call themselves the "Bluebloods." Pessl takes far too long to give the reader a glimmer of the events to come. Rather than sounding erudite, the book's character's sound stuffy and full of themselves. I tired of the dialogue which never seemed to go anywhere. I was surprised to read reviews that said that Pessl was not as smart as the book leads one to believe. The idea of the book , while not completely original, suffers more from execution than lack of originality. The characters are undeveloped, despite the scads of details about their lives. It's like looking at a photo album where one sees all the details but is left with nothing more than an image. I think some careful editing, and by careful I mean, cautious, so as not to deviate too much from the author's unique approach, might have made the story flow more smoothly. Not so much chatty detail may have made the novel less of a coming-of-age book by changing the tone, but would have made for a less chaotic read. I can see the merits of the novel and I believe it could be enjoyed by some readers,it just wasn't for me.… (more)
LibraryThing member JimElkins
This is a high school novel, with characters that barely develop.

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.
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LibraryThing member Daniel.Estes
Impressive. Marisha Pessl has composed a complex story interweaved with a smattering of cited cultural references. (I didn't check, are any of them made up?) Some readers may be turned off by a book this overtly clever, but for me it was as if I could feel my reading skill leveling up after each chapter.
LibraryThing member readabook66
Everyone loved this book. Why didn't I? Too slow, too many obsucre literary references, characters I just didn't care about.
LibraryThing member lxydis
annoying precious.
LibraryThing member tangential1
So, starting off I wasn't sure about this book. I found it oddly intriguing. The writing style just kind of grabbed my attention straight off. Quite a lot of introspection punctuated by pop culture and literary references and witty barbs thrown in for fun. Something like automatic empathy for the protagonist, and the author. And that empathy just tends to grow and grow as the book goes on. The author successfully puts you into the head of the main character. You feel what she feels. When she is embarrassed, you feel it. When she is creeped out, your skin crawls. When she is seriously afraid, your breathing gets shaky and you get the gut clench. She has this amazing way of describing what's going on. Everything has a metaphor to back it up; a reference to help you get it.

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).
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LibraryThing member bibliobeck
I found this book interesting and irritating in equal parts. The citations and references littering every page had driven me mad by page 500 and I found myself mostly skipping them. As the book wore on maybe the author felt the same as I had the impression she was (thankfully) skipping a few too. It's a shame because there were some darkly humerous citations in there, but the phrase 'less is more' springs to mind. Overall a very readable mystery story which I wanted to keep reading - but what disagreeable characters; especially Blue's snobbish, selfish father!… (more)
LibraryThing member mugwump2
Special Topics in Calamity Physics: After reading the overflowing reviews and selected quotes I was sucker-punched into going out and buying this modern day wonder that the Young-and-Beautiful-Author-although-you-shouldn't-hold that-against-her (NYTimes Gushy Book Review) EVEN ILLUSTRATED herself ! Wow. Get it.....

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.
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LibraryThing member claudiabowman
I was determined to finish this, despite it being mostly as overly pleased with itself and precious as the insufferable father character. It did turn interesting in about its last quarter. Unfortunate that the author thought we needed quite so much build up. Also unfortunate is the amount of time spent with Blue's straight from central casting 'frienemy' rich kid misfits. The author is *far* more interested in them than any reader could be.… (more)
LibraryThing member slkullberg
While the plot is inane, the characters are arresting and sometimes scary. The writing is amazing - every other sentence has a metaphor and many of them are wonderful.
LibraryThing member Kendall41
Lots of interesting things going on, but it never seemed to quite hold together for me.
LibraryThing member alic
Too long, in need of some drastic editing. The characters for the most part are cartoonish, and the plot needs tightened. And an ambiguous ending is fine and good for a book espousing Great Truths, but not for a murder mystery. The premise is clever, however, and the word painting well-done. A pretty impressive debut novel.


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