Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl

My book group met last night to discuss Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl. Let me tell you, it was a lively discussion! Where do I even start? Here’s the summary from Penguin:

Blue van Meer is the precocious only daughter of a dashing and scholarly father. After her mother’s death in a car accident when Blue is six, they hit the road together, traveling between her father’s ever-changing teaching positions in obscure college towns. While Blue’s intellectual gifts have been nurtured by her devoted father, she has never had a real home or friends. Instead, she has been raised on her father’s voice and on the literature and political history that he thrives on.

Enter Hannah Schneider and the Bluebloods, an enigmatic clique at St. Gallway, the private school Blue enters for her senior year. Hannah is the gorgeous, mysterious mentor to a select group of St. Gallway seniors, and she invites dutiful and shy Blue to join them. A film studies teacher, Hannah is alluring and unconventional, “the lone bombshell slinking into a Norman Rockwell,” who treats the students as friends and equals. For the first time in her life, Blue finds herself drawn out of the insular family world she and her father have created, and into the lives of these maverick and beautiful peers.

I can’t go too deeply into the plot without giving things away so I will focus on how I felt when I read this. Prior to my group selecting this, I knew nothing about it. I had no idea what to expect at all but I was pleasantly surprised after the first few chapters. There are many references to the “core curriculum” and as you can imagine… core curriculum for college prep includes the reading of some well known literature. Each chapter relates to the literature she is currently reading, or has recently read. I was fascinated with this aspect of the book.

Blue is a complicated character. She is often at odds with her intellect. Wanting desperately to fit in yet constantly aware that she is surrounded by those less intelligent than her. Every interaction is met with her own internal commentary on the situation. Her nicknames for people, the references she makes about people, etc. Much of this I found to be quite humorous.

Her father’s banter, also a source of entertainment, made me even more curious about him. In the beginning I was charmed by their relationship. It was clear that he was dragging around an unwilling participant, but it was also clear that she realized her role in his little adventures and went along with them.. for the most part.

The other characters in the book were not as interesting and I often questioned their placement in the book. Hannah, the teacher that befriends Blue is like a torn flag, flapping in the wind. You want to take her down, smooth her out… do something with her but I didn’t get a good feel for who she was and what she wanted in life. The students that Blue hangs out with, were interesting as a whole, but not as individuals. I wonder if that was the author’s point.

Overall, I felt the book was long. Very long. Over 500 pages with the story getting interesting at around page 300. When we discussed it as a group, no one seemed to have issues with the open ended quality of the storyline. I thought that was interesting. Its cleverness seemed to outweigh anything else. We also did not expect this to be a mystery of sorts.

If I can make one suggestion to you, it would be to give yourself plenty of time to read this. I did not pace myself properly and ended up rushing towards the end in order to finish it in time for my meeting. Spread it out over a few weeks if possible. There is just so much going on and so many details to pay attention to.

If you want to check out the bizarre website for the book click here. Be sure to click on all the clues.

For the reading guide, click here.

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