Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

This bulky-but-worth-it novel opens with the narrator and protagonist, Blue Von Meer, announcing her intention to tell us her Life Story from her dorm room at Harvard. She begins with her parents upbringing and marriage (her mother's family was extremely wealthy, her father's wasn't), then her mother's tragic death (when Blue was six - she fell asleep at the wheel after spending yet another late night working on her butterflies), then stories of countless small towns and an entire decade worth of time spent driving around America in a car, just Blue and her father, reading everything from Shakespeare to Hollywood biographies aloud to each other as they moved from place to place, sometimes living in 3 different towns a years. Blue's father, Gareth, is a civil war professor and was spreading his teachings to the most rural outposts of America. The story truly begins when Blue and Gareth settle in Stockton, North Carolina, and Blue begins her senior year of high school at St. Gallway, a prestigious private school.

From there, the story begins to closely resemble Donna Tartt's The Secret History - there is an exclusive clique that Blue refers to as The Bluebloods that consist of the five most eccentric, popular, beautiful, and mysterious seniors at St. Gallway. Every Sunday night they have a long and lavish dinner at Hannah Schneider's house, who is the enigmatic part time film teacher at St. Gallway's. After much snubbing and ostracizing, Blue is slowly accepted into the Bluebloods' group, and becomes privvy to many shocking secrets. Then someone is murdered.

But there's a mystery here, which caused me to read everything a bit more carefully than I read The Secret History. Why does Hannah take such a keen interest in Blue? She practically forces Blue on the Bluebloods, much to their annoyance. Hannah is an arresting character - she is gorgeous, tall, knife thin, and has a strong presence - so why isn't Blue's father Gareth, a known womanizer, (Blue refers to all his girlfriends as June Bugs), interested in her? And why doesn't Hannah ever talk about her past? And why does she hang around all these rich high school students anyway? When Hannah takes the group camping and ends up dead in the woods, hanging by an electrical cord, just before she was about to entrust Blue with an important secret, Blue begins to solve the mystery of Hannah's life, and her death.

The mystery plot is solid, and Pessl manages to wrap it up very nicely without making it feel overwrought. I don't think readers have a shot at deducing the who-dun-it, but then again, I'm starting to suspect that I'm a rather gullible reader (Darkly Dreaming Dexter took me by surprise - it didn't seem trite to me at all - and I would never have unravelled the mystery in The Interpretation of Murder, though two of my friends claim to have guessed at the ending immediately). Maybe I'm just a lazy reader. I'm beginning to suspect that when I read for pleasure, I simply don't spend a lot of energy trying to solve mysteries before I reach the denouement. I enjoy being led through a well told story far too much. Or perhaps I'm just trying to justify how bad I am at solving mysteries before I reach the last page. Anyone else surprised by the last page of Jodi Picoult's Salem Falls? Anyone? Really, I didn't see it coming.

Plot aside, the language, voice, and Gareth's character are what really makes Special Topics stand out. This novel is longer than it needs to be, and Hannah doesn't die until you've read more than three quarters of the novel, but because of the imaginative similes and metaphors (comparisons have been made to Lorrie Moore), I didn't mind too much. Blue is a precocious sixteen-year-old who is constantly referrencing books as she narrates, or inserting her Dad's opinion on everything in the form of rather wordy and philosophical quotes. Sound annoying? Well it's not. I actually enjoyed most of "Dad's" quotes - he has some very opinionated, original, and articulate things to say - and Blue is saved from being an unbearably precocious and pretencious character by her standard new-kid qualities. Blue's child genius side is tempered by her archetypal desire to be accepted by the Bluebloods, her unconcealed fascination with Hannah, and the way she openly loves and admires her Dad. Even when Blue is at a bar with Jade and Leulah, (two of the Bluebloods), picking up men, she can't stop talking about her father. She tells strangers about him, and repeats his oft-repeated quotes (if not aloud then in her head) constantly throughout the narrative. Because Blue is at an age where most teens despise their parents (or at least pretend to), her behavior is striking, and helps convey how tightly she clings to her father after the death of one parent.

Though Blue narrates, her father is truly the protagonist of the novel.

When this book was originally sold to Viking, a lot of fuss was made over another high advance paid for a young and attractive female author. It seems like everytime someone young and remotely attractive gets a book deal, the publishing industry and reviewers take a skeptical stance, suggesting it is the author's looks, and their publicity prospects that the publisher has paid for - and not necessarily the story. In the case of Marisha Pessl, this is just not true. To read an interview with the seemingly down-to-earth author, check out BookSlut

I would recommend this book to all my friends who enjoy literary fiction.