It is clear that twenty-something Marisha Pessl has talent, judging from the reviews already garnered for her debut novel, SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS. It is also a given that many will automatically compare SPECIAL TOPICS --- or, as I like to call it, "The Book That Is Bound To Wind Up On Many End-Of-The-Year-Bests Lists" --- to Donna Tartt's THE SECRET HISTORY. What hasn't been decided is whether or not readers will trudge through the 300 or so "set-up pages" in order to get to the truly exhilarating final 200.
From the get-go, SPECIAL TOPICS might seem a bit off-putting to some. Its plot unfolds, for the most part, on yet another wealthy high school campus, narrated by a protagonist (who some will swear bares a striking resemblance to Pessl) who is quite precocious and full of Big Ideas that are exhaustingly annotated, often with references to various books in parentheses --- a cumulative bibliography of sorts. Each chapter, although plot-driven, is tied to a certain curricular theme --- mainly, a well-known and often revered work of literary mastery (OTHELLO, HEART OF DARKNESS, THE TRIAL, PARADISE LOST, etc.). There is an Introduction, of course, as well as a cleverly designed afterword (aptly titled "Final Exam") that consists of questions readers might enjoy noodling over after finishing the actual story. All in all, it's a kitschy package for the publisher and booksellers, and a clever ploy to attract potential readers who may or may not be into the gimmick.
To give a brief synopsis of the book without giving anything away, SPECIAL TOPICS follows 16-year-old Blue van Meer and her father (a distinguished college professor) as they flit around the country, living in various college towns, mostly for one year at a time. Most of the book's meat takes place during Blue's senior year of high school at St. Gallway, a prep school in a small North Carolina mountain town called Stockton. To her surprise, Blue is soon befriended by the Bluebloods, an exclusive group of co-eds led by a film teacher (yes, a teacher), Hannah Schneider. For much of the book's beginning, the action (or lack thereof) revolves around Blue's interactions with various members of the Bluebloods, while she attempts to adjust to her new environment, maintain her valedictorian status, and continue on in her close but motherless relationship with her father. Thus far, the story is fairly status quo and reads as such.
A little more than halfway through the book, however, SPECIAL TOPICS takes a turn for the better and becomes infinitely more interesting. After a number of other minor yet noteworthy calamities, the Bluebloods go on a camping trip in the Great Smoky Mountains and Hannah Schneider winds up dead, dangling from a tree. (Not to worry, this detail is mentioned in the Introduction.) What follows is an adrenalin-driven thrill ride that is so clever and so delightfully complicated that readers will surely be kept on the edge of their seats until the very end. And the best part is that the whodunit is never fully solved --- or is it?
The question still remains: Does the gruesome conspiracy theory mystery disguised as an erudite treatise on teenage angst and literary greatness gimmick work?
Pessl's heavily weighted academic and artistic background (she studied English and Creative Writing at Columbia, and has dabbled in acting and the fine arts) is clearly present on every page of the book. Her incessant attention to detail, thematic chapter headings, and aforementioned literary side notes are often accompanied by art class line drawings as well. The effect of this combination lands somewhere between the tantalizing and the absurd. Sure, it's helpful to have a bit of defining background, but sometimes the onslaught approach (especially when reading a juicy murder mystery) feels like overkill and a little unnecessary.
Yet, despite it all, many readers will still slog through the minutiae to find themselves fully captivated by Pessl's scintillating world of intrigue. Her pacing toward the end of the story is spot-on, and her talent for playing up the suspense without ever fully giving in to it is brilliant. She excels at writing for shock value and never underestimates the intelligence (and imagination) of her readers. After reading the "Final Exam," some more dedicated readers might even feel the impulse to read through various sections of the book again in order to fit the pieces of this fascinating puzzle together.
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on January 23, 2011
Special Topics in Calamity Physics