Special Topics In Calamity Physics


Author: Marisha Pessl

Title: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Genre: Mystery, Literary fiction, Coming-of-age

Publication Date:  2006

Number of Discs: 17 sound discs, 22hrs

Geographical Setting: Stockton, N.C.

Time Period: Contemporary

Plot Summary:  This is a darkly funny coming-of-age story centers on the character of teenager Blue Van Meer.  Told in the first person narrative, after her mother dies in a car accident while Blue is in kindergarten, Blue travels with her eccentric, highly intelligent, and womanizing widower father Gareth for ten years.  Blue and her father travel to different obscure college towns, where her father is a visiting lecturer for no more than one semester until he and Blue are off to another college in another town.  While this does nothing for Blue’s social life, she is highly attached to her father and, in his company, has developed a clever, deadpan, and astute outlook on life, as well as an impressive lexicon of all things literary, political, philosophical, and scientific.  In Blue’s final year of high school, her father decides to finally settle down in Stockton, N.C. for the entire school year, where Blue is enrolled in the private St. Gallway school of Stockton.  In no time, Blue finds herself courted by an intriguing faculty member, Hannah Schneider, and is reluctantly accepted into her group of student followers: Milton, Charles, Leulah and Jade, each of whom seems to be hiding something about their past.  Blue is slowly accepted by this group of high school royalty known as the Bluebloods, but things soon begin to unravel when a man dies mysteriously at Hannah’s house and, eventually, when Hannah herself is found dead.  It is up to the clever and resourceful Blue to piece together the puzzle of this intricately forged murder mystery.  Cleverly told in a format that models a college syllabus (the chapters are named after everything from Othello to Paradise Lost to The Big Sleep), including a final examination at the end, this novel is an eclectic and intellectual murder mystery, full of subtle literary allusions and a slight undertone of menace or mystery pervades throughout.  Most importantly, however, is the coming of age story of extremely likable Blue van Meer, who, while being too intelligent for her own good, struggles with the classic themes of love, acceptance, and identity.

Subject Headings: Teenagers – Death, Teenage girls, Teachers – Death, College teachers, Father and daughter, Eccentrics and eccentricities, Cliques, Identity (Psychology), Moving to a new city, Murder, Murder investigation

Appeal: quirky, eccentric, dark, funny, mysterious, literary, postmodern, sincere, coming-of-age, suspenseful, character driven, intricate, detailed, engaging, leisurely paced.

 3 appeal terms that best describe this book: intricate, quirky, dark

 3 Relevant Fiction Works and Authors

1) Donna Tartt, The Secret History.  Pessl’s novel is termed the postmodern version of Tartt’s book, which is about a young man who upon his enrollment at a small Vermont college finds himself embraced by a clique of five young people led by a professor.  This group also, however, holds a dark secret that the young man slowly uncovers.  On NoveList, Shauna Griffin says, “Subtle suspense and building dread, as well as flawless prose, characterize both The Secret History and Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Each features a cast of brilliant but self-indulgent young people, whose secrets–and guilt–eventually come to light.”

2) Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, Lolita.  Pessl directly references Nabokov on several occasions in Special Topics, and has professed great admiration for the author personally.  Lolita is referenced frequently, and readers of Special Topics may want to pick this up simply because it was mentioned so many times.  This novel is much more shocking and tragic, however, than Pessl’s novel.

3) Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex.  This award-winning coming-of-age novel is very different from the plot of Special Topics, but the authors build the story the same way and create their eccentric and likable main protagonists the same way.  If you were a fan of Blue van Meer, you would also be a fan of Middlesex’s Calliope.

3 Relevant Nonfiction Works

1) Jay Robert Nash, Among the Missing: An Anecdotal History of Missing Persons from 1800 to the Present.  Books on missing persons are frequently discussed in the novel, and a reader may be curious enough to want to pick up material on the subject.

2) Maggie De Vries, Missing Sarah: A Vancouver Woman Remembers Her Vanished Sister.  Same reason as the above, but this one has more in common with the theme of Hannah and her mysterious past and weird fascination with missing people.

3) Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia.  Without giving away too much, this book would interest those who wish to learn about the political organization that comes up at the end of the novel.

Name: Rebecca C.


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