Marisha Pessl: Special Topics in Calamity Physics (review)

So yes, I have to write a review for this book. Or well, I don’t have too but I want too. I finished it yesterday and I’m still not quite sure what I think. I think it’s an uneven book. The first 200 pages was okay – interesting, but nothing amazing. Then the next 300 pages or so was actually great. I was intrigued, enjoying myself and really getting into the story. But then the end … Hm. I’m really not sure about the ending.

I’ve read some reviews that says everything will make sense when one reads the last chapter. And well, yeah, it did explain things. But I’m just not sure it did so in a very satisfying way. I’m still wondering … Sometimes it makes a book better when the end is ambiguous, sometimes it’s just the right thing. In this book – still not sure.

This is the story of Blue and her father and the year they spent in Stockton where Blue finished high school at St. Gallway School. Blue and her father have been alone since Blue’s mother died when she was 5 years old. Since then the two of them have been traveling from place to place, never staying for long in any place. Blue’s father is a political science professor and has made quite a name for himself so he never lacks for work. They move from town to town, Blue goes to school and her father teaches. On the road, they read books, discuss them, quote movies and more. Since Blue never really make any friends, she is quite bookish and does very good in school.

But everything changes when they arrive in Stockton. Here, Blue meets a rather enigmatic and very charismatic teacher, Hannah Schneider. Hannah introduces Blue to the Bluebloods – Jade, Charles, Leulah, Nigel and Milton. This group of students keep to themselves but meet up once a week for Sunday dinners at Hannah’s. Hannah makes sure that Blue becomes one of the group even though she never really fits in. The group crashes a party at Hannah’s at one point where a man drowns in a swimming pool. And then – there’s the camping trip. Planned by Hannah who drags the Bluebloods and Blue with her, neither of whom care anything for camping.

We know from an early point – the first page – that Blue found Hannah dead about a year earlier and that she’s now looking back and trying to figure out what happened. The book reads therefore somewhat as a murder mystery. Did Hannah commit suicide? Why? The action packed chapters relating to this mystery was by far the best. The dead man in the swimming pool, Hannah’s demise, her father’s research, the death of her mother – everything come together in the theory, Blue thinks out towards the end to figure it all out.

There’s so much of the plot that I have left out because I think it will ruin the book if I start talking about these things. Some of the things Blue tells about her life before Stockton and her father’s research is extremely important – some things are not. I don’t want to spoil it for anybody by talking about any of these things.

There are enough good ideas in this to make me want to read the author’s next book when it’s published. There were parts of this that were truly genius, unforgettable scenes. My favorite one is Blue stumbling through the forest, going after the sound of what she thinks is a child swinging – loved it. I was so into this – just stumbling along with Blue, trying to figure out what the sound was.

I think there’s something in this book. I think there is something there to find. I think this book would be better on a second read. Either that, or else this novel is way too constructed. I’m still not sure. The structure of the novel is a Core Curriculum – a list of Required Reading. Each chapter is named after a famous novel with the final chapter being the final exam: ‘/…/ a professor is the only person on earth with the power to put a veritable frame around life – not the whole thing, God no, – simply a fragment of it, a small wedge. He organizes the unorganizable. /…/ You think me crazy. Consider a Kandinsky. Utterly muddled, put a frame around it, voilà – looks rather quaint above the fireplace. And so it is with the curriculum. That celestial, sweet set of instructions, culminating in the scary wonder of the Final Exam. And what is the Final Exam? A test of one’s deepest understanding of giant concepts.’ (p. 11). Now I love this image. And that’s what Blue does. She tries to frame her experiences with Hannah to make sense of them and so she uses her father’s advice and creates a Curriculum and ending her text with a Final Exam. But my problem with this is, that even though it’s a neat idea, I need it to be more. If you name each chapter after a famous work of literature, you need to do so for a reason – and the reason has to be more than your main character being really bookish. I didn’t see the connections.

And the final exam, well, that’s not Blue’s work. That’s the work of Marisha Pessl. I don’t think Blue would write that final questionnaire and that kind of ruins the whole way of organizing the book a bit. I didn’t think this way of ending the book completely works. It does give some hints at answers but I think it’s presented in the wrong way.

Another thing is, that all we have to go on in this novel, is Blue’s words and thoughts, written down about a year after the whole episode with Hannah and after Blue has assembled her theory of everything, that has happened. Can we trust Blue? Is she a reliable narrator? I’m not sure but part of the Final Exam seems to hint that she’s not. And in fact, the entire Final Exam with it’s multiple choice questions as well as the repeated mention of the ‘final examination will test your deepest understanding of giant concepts’ (p. 509) seem to mean that we, the readers, have to decide for ourselves what really happened.

This book compares rather easily to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. A group of students, an enigmatic teacher who gathers them. An outsider enters the group. Death. In my opinion, there’s a lot of differences between the two. The Secret History is about the group of students and what happens between them where Special Topics in Calamity Physics is more about Blue, her father and Hannah – the group of students are less important and fades out of the story as it turns truly interesting. In my opinion, The Secret History is by far the better book. Better written, more interesting characters, a more compelling plot.

I want to finish this with a wonderful quote from the book, something Blue’s father says to her and that I want to say to my daughters: ‘May your studies continue to the end of your days. /…/ May you walk a lighted path. May you fight for truth – your truth, not someone else’s – and may you understand, above all things, that you are the most important concept, theory and philosophy I have ever known.’ (p. 314)

  • Title: Special Topics in Calamity Physics
  • Author: Marisha Pessl
  • Publisher: Viking – Penguin Books
  • Year: 2006
  • Pages: 514 pages
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

Further reading:

  • Core Curriculum – review by Liesl Schillinger for The New York Times Book Review

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12 thoughts on “Marisha Pessl: Special Topics in Calamity Physics (review)

  1. I’m really excited to read this book even though it sounds like it’s a slow burner to start with. I have a weakness for unreliable narrators, makes the reading experience much more interesting🙂

  2. Hmm, this sounds interesting… especially the academic nerdiness of it (I am married to a poli sci professor), but I am not sure I currently have the patience for something with slow bits. I’ll have to keep it in mind, though.

    • It is interesting – especially as a first novel. Her new novel is supposed to come out this or next year and I’m very excited about it. She has talent and if she learns how to wield it, she can be really good. If your husband is a poll sci professor, maybe you’ll get a real kick out of this.

  3. I’ve had this book on my shelf for ages! I heard good things about it before, which was why I bought it, but I never got around to reading it, partly because it’s so thick! I’ve been meaning to read it soon. The title of the different chapters intrigued me….but, your comparison to The Secret History was not very encouraging, as I really disliked that book. lol.

    Hmmm…now I’m thinking twice about taking it up again…..and it’s not really a short read….. What do you think?

  4. I’ve read several so-so responses to this book, and I think I’ll probably share some of your hesitation about certain aspects of it, but the bookishness of it is still beckoning strongly to me; it’s on my list of possible chunksters for this year, but even if I don’t get to it in 2012, I’ll keep my eye on it!

    • I had read some not-quite-loving-it reviews too – but that didn’t stop me. And parts of it was excellent. I’m certainly interested in her next book so there’s certainly potential. I do still prefer ‘The Secret History’ by Tartt though.

  5. This book is the next book in my to-read pile and I’ve gone through a bunch of wonderful wordpress reviews, but everyone has some sort of “but” about this book. I’m really intrigued to read it though because all of the reviews, including yours, have been so well-written.

    • Yes, it does seem that a lot of people like it but have issues with it. If you’re interested in something a bit similar, I loved Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. It’s somewhat similar but better in theme, but better, I think. I’m looking forward to reading what you think about it.

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