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Parnassus Book Reviews

Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marsha Pessl
A Review by Mary Guss


October 09, 2007

In multiple ways, Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a big book. From the story itself to the extreme literate-ness of the writing, there is a great deal about it to like. If you are like me, the thrill-ride of the language will grab you first and instantly. Then the slow, deliberate unwrapping of the layers of the story will render you nearly incapable of putting the book down. And at that point you will be glad for the sheer size of Special Topics, all 514 pages of it.

jpg Special Topics in Calamity Physics

The wise-and-witty-beyond-her-years heroine and narrator of the story is Blue Van Meer, whose growing-up has been marked by multiple moves each school year to new locales with her college-professor father. He is no longer teaching at the top colleges; rather, as Blue puts it:

Dad was now interested in bringing his erudition, international fieldwork experience and research to the bottom tiers ("bottom-feeders he called them in a Bourbon Mood), the schools no one had ever heard of, sometimes not even the students enrolled in them

The year of the book Blue and her Dad wash up at Stockton, North Carolina and Blue enrolls at St. Gallway School for her senior year. There begins what seems to be the tale of Blue finding her way around the people and events life throw at her that year a tale told with much humor and irony and illustrations. I reality, however, the story is something altogether more. It is told in retrospect, written from Blue,s Harvard dorm room during her first year there. Things by that point just need to be explained. Though she struggles with how to do that, Blue is finally able to move forward with her writing because she remembers a lesson learned from her Dad, "There is nothing more arresting than a disciplined course of instruction. [A] professor is the only person on earth with the power to put a veritable frame around life He organizes the unorganizable -- as does Blue.

Each chapter in this book is named for another literary work everything from The Heart of Darkness to Pygmalion to The Big Sleep. These titles are presumably the reading list for Blue,s "course of instruction. It is fun to try to figure out what, if anything, each title has to do with its chapter. It is even more fun to try to "get all the literary references that Blue sprinkles into those chapters as fast and furiously as October rain in Ketchikan. Even without the story, what author Marisha Pessl does with the English language and body of literature makes Special Topics a hugely satisfying read.

But the story oh, the grand story. Even though as the reader you know from page one what has happened to one major character and even though you think you have carefully followed the tale as it unfolds, at the end you will be surprised. And you will be tempted to go back through the book to see what clues were there. Go right ahead it will be almost like reading a different book when you do that with the wisdom you,ve gained by the end of the first reading. And the only thing better than reading this remarkable book once will be to read it a second time.

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