Special Topics in Clamity Physics by Marisha Pessl


“As a Harvard freshman recounting the events of the previous year, when her childhood “unstitched like a snagged sweater,” Blue remembers being thoroughly in thrall to her father, a political science professor who changes jobs at third-tier colleges so frequently that by age 16 she’s attended 24 different schools. To compensate for this rootlessness (her lepidopterist mom died in a car crash when Blue was 5), Dad has promised his daughter an undisturbed senior year in the North Carolina mountain town of Stockton, where Blue will attend the ultra-preppy St. Gallway School.
It’s at St. Gallway that Blue’s dedication to her pompous, theory-spouting father begins to waver. Her attention is diverted by the school’s most glamorous figures, a clique of five flighty kids called the Bluebloods who meet every Sunday night for dinner at the home of their mentor, Hannah Schneider, a charismatic film teacher.”
(Washington Post, 2007).

It is not often that a book gets to me the way this one did. A few days into the reading I had a dream about the characters; this is how much I identified with Pessl’s book (yes this how her last name is spelled). The main character Blue Van Meer (I love this name!) and her father Garth remind me of my best friend in high school and her father (though they did not travel, rather her dad attracted many people to his world). Garth Van Meer is a laid back political professor who thinks rather highly of himself but has little regard for other people’s feelings, especially the women who come and go. Blue calls these women June Bugs as they are attracted to her father like a bug to a flame, and like bugs and flame, nothing good comes to these women. My friend Heidi’s dad would date women for sex, but when they wanted more he pushed them away without a thought about the feelings of these women. Garth Van Meer does the same.

The book takes place during Blue’s senior year at a preppy high school, and like many teens finds herself drawn to a group of her peers while pulling away from her dad. Reading the novel as Blue starts to see her dad in a new light just as she starts to rebel, got me thinking about the relationship between parent and child. It seems to me no matter how well we think we have raised our kids, they can be highly influenced by their peers. Years of carful parenting can be thrown out the window if our children fall under the spell of other kids. At some point in our relationship our children will stop seeing us as mom or dad and start seeing us as humans. This change can sometimes be painful, for Blue it is shattering.
The charismatic teacher Hannah Schneider seems at first to be the tragic figure in the novel, the reader is told in the beginning that she is found hanging from a tree. The story is about the events that led up to this suicide (or was it?). Again, it seems Hannah is the tragic figure, but as the book unfolds it becomes clear all the characters are tragic or damaged in some way.

Pessl manages to make five spoiled preppy teens sympathetic, though not always likable, not an easy task and not one that many first time writers can pull off. I never really cared about them, but I did understand them so what ends up happening makes their response believable. What is not believable is the final plot scenario. It is not that Pessl writes a twist; rather she brings the reader in a secret that is not only unbelievable, but leaves the reader asking questions. There are a couple of serious plot holes that make the ending feel forced and drags the book down. The other thing that drags the book down is Pessl incessant use of footnotes in the text (see redundant in any dictionary). At first the footnotes drive Pessl’s description but after awhile they start to wear on the reader and become a distraction.

This is Pessl’s first novel and though I had problems with the plot and her writing style I do hope she writes more books, minus the footnotes in quotations. I would not hesitate to read another by her. After all, it is not often I dream about fictional characters.

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

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