Monday, March 24, 2008

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Simply put, I did not enjoy this book – not at all. It is pretentious, wordy and boring and is filled with enough cardboard characters to fill a book of paper dolls. But, I am certainly grateful to its author, Marisha Pessl, for reminding me that I will not live forever and that I should never again waste my time on a 514 page novel as irritating and boring as this one, two emotions that I’ve seldom experienced at the same time.

Some of you will remember that Special Topics in Calamity Physics turned into a bit of an experiment for me because I listened to the first half of the book in its audio version but read the text of the book’s second half for myself. I didn’t plan to do it that way but when I was forced to return the book CDs earlier than expected it seemed like a great opportunity to compare the two versions of the book and my reaction to each of them. Let’s just say that if Emily Janice Card, an actor and singer from North Carolina, had not done such an excellent job with the audio book, I would not have suffered through the second half of the book on my own because I would never have finished the first half.

The book’s plot is straightforward. A sixteen-year old girl and her father, a college professor who changes jobs at least once a year, have reached an agreement that he will stay put for her entire senior year of high school. Completing an entire school year without having to change schools is such a rare thing for Blue van Meer that she feels as if her father has given her an early graduation gift by agreeing to plant roots for the next nine months in Stockton, North Carolina.

Much to her surprise, Blue is almost immediately taken in by a group of students known to everyone else, including teachers, as “the Bluebloods,” a small cluster of the most popular students at St. Gallway led by the school’s film teacher, Hannah Schneider. But this is a coming-of-age novel cloaked in a murder mystery, so Blue quickly learns that she is resented by everyone in the group and is there only at the insistence of Hannah Schneider who has taken a strangely intense interest in Blue. More than half the book concerns Blue’s efforts to fit into the group, something she is at first not really sure she cares to do, and the fascination that the group has with the mysterious Hannah Schneider.

Things finally get interesting when the students take a camping trip to the Smoky Mountains that Ms. Schneider has insisted upon. As revealed in the book’s opening pages, Ms. Schneider does not return from that trip and Blue spends the rest of the book searching through clues that will explain what happened to her and exactly who Hannah Schneider was and what relationship she may have had with Blue’s father. And there you have it: 350 pages used to set-up the real heart of the book, its last 150 pages.

But that’s not the real problem with Special Topics in Calamity Physics. What makes this one so difficult to read is Pessl’s use of what could have been a clever gimmick if it were not so overused and abused for 514 pages. Pessl is apparently a well read individual, and in this, her debut novel, she decided to display her knowledge of world literature by citing book references, both real and made-up ones, as qualifiers for practically every point or description she makes in telling her story, something that was clever, even charming, the first two dozen or so times she did it but which became a terrible bore by the time she had done it a few hundred times, much less what must be well over a thousand times. Such an overabundance of references, be they real or fictional ones, made Blue’s first person narrative difficult to follow and distracted from what should have been the story’s sense of urgency. Pessl’s use of the countless references, and long, drawn-out parenthetical comments, may have been more than self-exhibitionism, however, since the tendency to constantly cite references was part of Blue’s character as well as that of her father. But Pessl, as author, relied so much on this technique that she failed to fully develop the other characters in her book, asking instead that her readers fill in the blanks for themselves based on the often obscure references Blue linked to those characters.

All of these frustrations would perhaps have been worth the time and effort required to get through them were it not for the fact that the “murder mystery” ends in such an open-ended way. There is no clear-cut resolution explaining Hannah Schneider’s death and any link it may have had to Blue’s father. Blue does manage to conjure up an explanation that makes sense to her, based on the limited “inside” information that she has, but it is only one possible answer. Readers expecting the mystery to be solved will have to do more pondering on their own and will wonder if the 514-page effort has really been worth it.

For me, it was not.

Rated at: 2.0


  1. Nooo, say it isn't so! I actually bought this book last year but haven't had the chance to read it yet. Now I wish I hadn't bought it. Oh well.

  2. Hey Sam
    So far you saved me from reading three books. Looking forward to many more. You can bill me quarterly for all that time that I'm not wasting thanks to you.

  3. Oh no!! I loathe open ended books. If I wanted to use my imagination that much, I'd write (or make up) my own darn stories. A little twee sounding on all the references too.

  4. Hey! You forgot to mention how attractive Ms. Pessl is. From what I remember, all discussion of her "novel" is supposed to revolve around the fact of her beauty--every other review I've ever read has mentioned it.

    Has the statute of limitations ended?

    (no, but seriously, that's about what I'd figured of the book. Thanks for confirming, and sorry you had to read it to do so)

  5. Stefanie, this one could (there's a tiny little remote possibility) strike you differently than it did me. :-)

    Seriously...if you look at the Amazon reviews, something close to 300 of them, I think, you'll see votes of "five" and votes of "one." In fact, some of the folks who have been critical about the book have been attacked by passionate fans of it...weird to me when honest reviews are trashed by those who don't agree with the rating.

  6. Martha, Bybee...I hope I haven't kept either of you from reading something you may have enjoyed. I don't give really bad "reviews" unless a book really, really bothers me. This one did.

  7. Carrie, I tend to agree with you, especially in the case of a 514-page book in which I've invested several hours of my limited time...and the facts, as presented here, did not make me want to spend any more time pondering them on my own. They just were not all that interesting in the first place.

  8. Will, she's kinda cute but the book made me forget about bonus points allotted for her good looks.

    I have to wonder why the Times went crazy over this one and why she has been so heavily praised for's not even mediocre, as written. I wonder if her editor was afraid of her.

  9. I got a third of the way through this book and left it for dead. I'd vaguely planned to return to it one day, but yours and the other bad reviews I've read on this one have convinced me that I shouldn't even bother with such a weak lie to myself. I think this one is probably going to go in my Bookmooch pile.

  10. J.S., this is one of those books I feel cheated for having wasted so much of my life on. Your opinion at one-third of the way through is probably not going to change if you go back to the book, would be my guess.