Since the death of his wife, itinerate professor Gareth Van Meer has traveled extensively across the United States with his daughter, Blue. He never spends more than one semester at a school before moving on, with the result that, by age 16, Blue has attended 24 different schools. Their travels provide fertile ground for Gareth to instruct his daughter on life, literature and everything in between; as a result, Blue is erudite, overly educated and socially awkward. To ensure Blue’s entry into an Ivy League school, Gareth is determined that his daughter will have an uninterrupted senior year, so he settles them in Stockton, North Carolina, where Blue is scheduled to attend the elite St. Gallway School.
Shortly after her arrival in Stockton, Blue meets Hannah Schneider, the magnetic film studies teacher at St. Gallway School. Through Hannah, Blue is introduced to the Bluebloods, the ruling aristocracy of the school who meet each Sunday night at Hannah’s home. When a student ends up dead during a party at Hannah’s home, Blue and the Bluebloods decide to investigate. Later, on a camping trip in the Great Smoky Mountains, Hannah ends up dead, dangling from a tree. Blue is convinced that her teacher did not commit suicide and is determined to prove she was murdered.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics is told as a flashback; readers are aware from the start that Hannah meets her death by hanging. When readers first meet Blue, she is in her freshman year at Harvard University and trying to make sense of the past year. Structuring her reminiscences as a survey course of “great literature,” each chapter bears the title of a classic work as well as contextual similarities to the chosen work, as a means of framing this difficult period in her life.
Blue has wholeheartedly adopted her father’s philosophy of communication: "Always have everything you say exquisitely annotated, and, where possible, provide staggering Visual Aids." Lest readers worry that the continual annotation becomes too distracting, rest reassured that Blue’s distinctive voice supports her unique style of narration. Lovers of mysteries may bemoan that Marisha Pessl’s love of all things literary and erudite provides an onslaught of information which interferes with their enjoyment of the mystery central to this weighty novel. For some readers this may hold true, and those readers may choose to take a pass on Special Topics in Calamity Physics.
Pessl takes time to build the tension in Special Topics in Calamity Physics, walking readers calmly through introductions to the players and the scene. However, the pace escalates about a third of the way into the book, and from there readers may feel like they are on a runaway train. The pace, combined with Pessl’s thousands of references to books, movies, and pop culture result in a novel that often leaves the reader off-balance and confused as to what actually happened – a state reminiscent of teenage angst. Pessl uses language as a shield and a mirror, reflecting the emotion of her characters while protecting them from extensive scrutiny, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and illusion.
In the end, Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a difficult novel to penetrate and within which to gauge what truly happened to Hannah Schneider. As one reviewer comments: “Pessl…is like an explosion, her energy going off in all directions, her power not under control.” This is directly attributable to her youth as a novelist. Special Topics in Calamity Physics is an amazing achievement for any writer and is extraordinary as a debut novel. Marisha Pessl is a writer to watch as she discovers her métier and matures into her talents.