Fin: ‘Special Topics in Calamity Physics’

special topics

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

by Marisha Pessl

  • Date finished: Dec. 15, 2012
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Year: 2006
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading list: Winter 2012
  • Quick thoughts upon finishing: You know, I decided to read Special Topics in Calamity Physics … picked up, who knows where … because after Les Miserables and The Hobbit, I felt I needed something — new. Different. Something that wasn’t necessarily a classic. Modern. I needed something to refresh me and you know what: this novel did just that.
  • I’ve read a lot of the criticism around Special Topics in Calamity Physics, namely it’s showman-style literary pyrotechnics. I will agree with that criticism: Pessl is smart with words, but man oh man, she doesn’t know when to stop. Sure, some of her allusions and metaphors are pretty cool, but after awhile, the prose makes the book a little difficult to slog through.
  • And that’s unfortunate, because I really liked Special Topics in Calamity Physics. It’s a coming-of-age novel, but also a mystery that (literally — not trying to be cliche here) compels you to keep turning those pages. Usually, I’m OK putting a book down when it’s time for bed/to go to the store/dinner. But for the first time in awhile, I kept having to tell myself/Joel, “Just a few more pages.” “Just until the end of this section!” “Wait til this chapter’s over, then we’ll go to bed!” I don’t want to ruin the mystery for future readers, but I literally was waiting for answers until the last page.
  • All that being said, I also liked Special Topics in Calamity Physics because it was smart. The protagonist, Blue van Meer is incredibly, if not a little frighteningly, smart and the way the book is outlined and written reflects that. She’s probably a little too well read for her own good, but it makes you feel like you’re reading something beyond the ordinary teenage memoir, which was nice.
  • Speaking of the teenage part (the story is set against Blue’s senior year at an exclusive prep school in North Carolina): when I was about a third of the way into the book, I told Joel, “This is what Prep should have been like.” And I still believe that. Because while the teenage part was less compelling than the overall mystery (Blue has to take a few days off school to figure it all out because really, school can wait), Blue’s awkward entry into a teenage social life was fraught with many of the real-life perils and anxieties real people actually face. Prep…not so much.
  • Awards: The book won the inaugural John Sargent, Sr. First Novel Prize in 2006.
  • Grade: A-
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