Review: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Several years ago one of my friends recommended Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. The cool title aside, one of the characters shared my uncommon name that I could never find personalized items for in stores. So I picked up the book, and it sat on my bookshelf for several years. This was partly because my to-read list was already longer than was manageable, and that book hadn’t done anything to earn its way to the top, name-sharing aside. About a week and a half ago I finally picked it up and started to read. I finished it tonight.

For a book that was selected as one of the ten best books of 2006 by The New York Times (the back cover, Special Topics in Calamity Physics), I expected better. Actually, I take that back; I expected better because of the tastes of the friend who recommended it to me. The plot itself was interesting enough: the story of the extremely bright Blue Van Meer’s last year of high school, the friends she makes, and the mysterious events leading up to and following the death of her teacher. The explanation that Blue stumbles upon following the teacher’s death, however, came out of left field. There were bits of foreshadowing before the explanation came to be, but there weren’t enough bits of foreshadowing for the truth to make sense.

The constant citing of works throughout the book, just like I did earlier, grew more tiresome as the book went on. This was doubly true for the entire paragraphs from other works that contributed little to the story and many of the parenthetical remarks within the citations. Blue views the world through other works, and she makes a point of it throughout the book. However, Blue and Pessl can reference the works without the constant citations.

This leads to my next complaint: the book could have been shorter without losing quality. Don’t get me wrong; I love long books. In fact, the book I plan on starting tomorrow clocks in at a hefty 662 pages; one of the reviews on the back cover says that not a word is wasted, so I’ll be testing that. For Calamity Physics, there are entire paragraphs that can be cut without losing value in the story. Pessl’s writing style lends itself to many words that can be cut; I found myself doing so while reading. The story drags in the beginning, and despite the scenes being interesting, I found myself wondering when the plot would start to pick up. The first incident on the back cover doesn’t happen until part two, almost 170 pages into the story. That’s almost 170 pages of setup. There are definitely cuttable parts.

Now on to the good. As one of those kids who was ostracized for being smart, I could relate to Blue; we both relate to the world through books and found ourselves facing very high academic expectations–in her case because her father was a professor, in my case because my parents expected nothing less after discovering that I could achieve at such a high level. Blue’s relationship with her father is my favorite part of the story; in fact, her hoity-toity academic father is my favorite character in the book, which made the explanation at the end of the book doubly disappointing.

The verdict: Not as good as is hyped, but still an intriguing (if long and occasionally annoying) read. I don’t think I’d reread this.

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