February 21, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

By |2018-03-21T18:27:30+01:00October 1st, 2006|Recent Reviews|

By Marisha Pessl

Viking, 2006. 514 pages.


ypass the clever’n’cruel pop fireworks that swarm Pessl’s inspired first novel and you get a Nancy Drew mystery caper with a noir ending.

Protagonist Blue Van Meer is a shy but precociously super-charged teen whose private life (school, friends, and father) is an autobiographical confession. For Blue, I.Q. 175, intellect exists to serve sarcasm, wit, and every kind of allusion. She filters most human action through book sources and titles, some real, others parody (“Christ, It’s Been Done Before: Celluloid Jesuses from 1912-1988, Why Hollywood Should Cease Committing the Son of God to Screen [Hatcher, 1989]).”

Blue’s dear old dad is Swiss-born Gareth, a widower who teaches political scientist (“revolutionary studies”), speaks in aphorisms, and devotedly hauls his overachieving daughter across small-town U.S.A. as an antidote to boredom and to dodge cloying women (Blue calls them “June Bugs”). Gareth, says Blue, is “part Pershing missile, part People’s Prince.”

Or so it seems.

The mercurial father-daughter duo make narrative landfall in Stockton, North Carolina, where Blue enrolls in upscale St. Gallway and meets mysterious 40-something film teacher, Hannah Schneider, who has a penchant for Antonioni’s “L’Avventura,” and concocts a Sunday afternoon salon for five special students (including vixen blonde Jade, a Carolina Valley Girl with a mother called Jefferson.)

Though Hannah’s death, announced early on, is the book’s first trompe l’oeil jaw-dropper, it’s Blue’s ensuing detective work (“schoolgirl Sam Spade”) that’s the mint in this chilled julep.

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