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Marisa Pessl: Special Topics in Calamity Physics


Active Member
Has anyone read this amazing book? I just finished it, and was blown away by it. :D

Below, is my review.

Right from the introduction of the book, we know we are facing a mystery. In the initial pages, we learn that the protagonist’s teacher, Hannah, has been found dead, “hanging by a piece of electrical cord”.

The book is written through the eyes of Blue van Meer, a ‘bleak’ (as described by a minor character), precocious 16 year old girl. She has spent a great majority of her life, travelling the country with her father, a political science professor (and habitual womaniser – woman cling to him like ‘lint balls to wool pants’).

The story takes hold when Blue and her father settle down in a small town in North Carolina, so that Blue can complete her senior year at one school. There she is reluctantly befriended by a group of ‘elite students’ (called the Bluebloods) – the friendship imposed upon them, by their much admired (to them, anyway) teacher, Hannah Schneider. Hannah lives an unorthodox life; she is very private, and reveals nothing about her life or her past; there is something about her that is very mysterious and alluring. Later, when Hannah Schneider’s body is found, Blue sets out to solve the mystery behind her death.

The book has often been compared to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and though it’s quite easy to see why, it’s only superficially accurate. Both books are set in a scholarly world – though in this case, it’s more through Blue’s narrative, rather than the story itself – and both books are centred about a group of ‘elite’ students. However that’s where the comparison ends.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics has such a unique style. It is peppered with constant references (some real, most fictitious) to books and films, and visual aids; a lot of people have complained about the over-use of references, but that is simply Blue’s style. Personally, I loved the references. I’ll admit, they bothered me at first, but once I’d settled into the book, they really added to the style and richness of the story.

If you are after a quick read – something you can fly through, process, move on and forget about it - then you probably won’t like this much. It takes time and dedication to read, and the reader is constantly made to think about what is happening – but that is half the fun. It is never a difficult, tiresome read. Athough dense, Special Topics in Calamity Physics is so intriguing that you can’t help but stay engrossed.

I give it 5/5; it is the best (not to mention original) book I have read in a long time.


I agree with the 5/5. For me, it was a very fast read: I simply could not put it down.

Quite whacky, very uneven, the plot moves here and there, starts out as a teenage-angst novel, bubbling with literary (and other) references, suddenly it's a murder mystery, which finally turns into almost Pynchon-style conspiracy - but somehow it just works and adds up to something unique.