#5 – Special Topics in Calamity Physics

May 13, 2008

Okay, first things first – I’m finally done school! Hopefully forever! This is going to change around the format of Small Victories a bit, because instead of having no time to read 8 months a year and tons of time to read as much as I can over the summer, I should have the same amount of limited spare reading time all year round now. So my updates here should be more regular now, if not as frequent. To commemorate this, I thought it was about time to get a new theme from WordPress. I hope it’s just as easy to use as the old one.

So: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. A title like that basically demands an explanatory A Novel after it, and could probably use a parenthetical (But It’s Actually Really Interesting, You Guys, I Swear) as well. That’s pretty much how it was recommended to me, and it’s a good thing, because there’s so way I would have picked up a book called Special Topics in Calamity Physics and read it for fun without some outside impetus. Because I regularly judge books by their covers, that’s just how I roll.

After actually reading it, it turns out there’s very little scientific about this one, contrary to my initial concerns. It is a very academic book, though. Ridiculously academic , in fact – the main character cites various textbooks in her narration, characters speak in elaborate and wordy metaphors, and every chapter is named after a classic work of literature. And there is a test at the end. (I am not joking, I should have taken notes.) The story is about Blue van Meer, a well-read high school senior, and her father, a hugely pretentious and pretty hilarious university professor. Blue is just getting settled into her new school and new group of enigmatic friends when her teacher mysteriously dies. Or was it…murder?!?!?

Even though the death of the teacher is mentioned in the first sentence of the first chapter of the book, and even though the library put a big “MYSTERY” genre sticker on the side, when the story suddenly develops two-thirds of the way through into a murder investigation it’s a pretty thrilling turn. The book up until then is a lot of exposition, and as I said, a LOT of metaphors. Really interesting ones, and unique: in my favourite example, Blue describes a character’s beauty as like that of a woman who catches your eye from a black-and-white photo in a random biography:

It wasn’t her biography, but the portly Nobel Prize-winner she sat next to; but so arresting were the dark eyes, the sleek hair, the strict expression, one wondered who she was, and didn’t want to keep reading when there was no other mention of her.

I love that line so much, I actually did make a note of it. But here’s the thing: that bit of brilliance comes in the middle of a story the character in question is telling; Blue interrupts her in the middle to drop that bit of narrative gold. While it’s a pleasure to read, it makes it pretty slow going for anything to happen until the previously mentioned death sends the narrative racing off at a surprising rate. At which point the book more than makes up for any lulls in the story that came before. I would recommend Special Topics in Calamity Physics if you’re a patient reader, because it’s a book that definitely rewards you.

This is Pessl’s first and, to date, only novel; according to Wikipedia her next one is due out in 2010. I look forward to reading it when she’s done, I’m curious to see what she’ll come up with next. I know she can do beautiful prose, and I know she can do thrilling plotlines, but can she combine them a bit more elegantly next time around?

(By the way, when I was grabbing that picture of the book’s cover I checked out a few other reviews online, and like Raych from Books I Done Read, I was also tempted to just link to this perfectly brief review from Slowly Going Bald and be done with it. That’s exactly what I thought of this book, in like 1/15th of the words I used here. Outstanding.)



  1. Glad you read this Calum – I thought it was an interesting read, esp reading it so quickly after Tartt’s Secret History…

  2. Thanks for the flurry of comments, Rose! Sorry I didn’t reply sooner, I’ve been extremely slack on reading and have been away from the blog as a result. This book really was interesting, a lot of good ideas and great lines. I really want to see where she goes next, though.

    I definitely am planning on reading Fall On Your Knees at some point, it’s on the list for sure. At the current rate I’ve been leisure reading, I should be getting to it sometime around 2055.

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