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BOOK REVIEW: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl


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, with the result that 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 and 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 and later, on a camping trip in the Great Smoky Mountains, Hannah ends up dead dangling from a tree.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics is told as a flashback and 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 is 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 whole-heartedly adopted her father’s philosophy of communication: “Always have everything you say exquisitely annotated, and, where possible, provide staggering Visual Aids.” Least 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 moan 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 might be wise 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 quickly 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 popular culture result in a novel that often leaves the reader off-balance and confuse 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.

Read the review at Curled Up with a Good Book.

ISBN10: 067003777X
ISBN13: 9780670037773

528 Pages
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: August 3, 2006
Book Website:


posted under Debut Novel, fiction, mystery
3 Comments to

“BOOK REVIEW: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl”

  1. On February 14th, 2007 at 2:33 pm littlebirdblue Says:

    I’m loving your choice of debut novels with unusual format and presentation. Thanks again for another quality review.

  2. On February 14th, 2007 at 5:06 pm Josh Says:

    Great reviews! Sorry this should probably be an email, but I couldnt find a way to email you directly. I’m trying to start a user-submitted review site ( and was wondering if you would be willing to submit a review. You’d retain full rights to anything you posted and the review would include a link to your blog as a way to promote your site. We’re also running a highest rated review contest which you would be eligible for. Let me know what you think, thanks!

  3. On February 15th, 2007 at 3:08 pm karen! Says:

    I remember seeing this book in the store and just loving its title…

    J, I know you were worried about meeting your one per day goal, but you seem to be going wonderfully– meeting the self-imposed deadline with full well-thought reviews. Brava!

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