Book Review: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

sptopicsFour things about Marisha Pessl’s debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics:

1. I enjoyed the audio version more than the book itself (though I alternated between the two for the six weeks it took me to finish the book.) The reader makes the precocious narrator, Blue Van Meer, sound adorable instead of irritating – overblown metaphors and all.

2. Despite a message to the readers (disguised as a diatribe from one of the main characters) about how lazy it is to expect resolution and a known outcome at the end of a book or movie, I still don’t think it’s okay to write a 600 page novel where you don’t resolve all the subplots, throw out red herrings but never explain why they were there, and generally leave certain characters unresolved.

3. My library has this book shelved as a Mystery, but anyone going into this expecting a traditional mystery will be severely frustrated. It’s a work of literary fiction first – the main movement through the book is character development, with the book’s two murders occurring in the middle and almost at the end.

4. Character development is spotty. We get to love Blue’s dad by viewing him through her eyes, and see how that perspective changes through the events of the book. Powerful stuff. But the way the author handles Hannah’s character is evidence of a general lack of understanding of human psychology. The author supplies us with a lecture on ‘nobody is all good or all bad’ via one of her characters, but I really think that Hannah as defined by her actions in the first two-thirds of the book had a personality disorder. And that diagnosis is inconsistent with how Hannah’s subplot is resolved in the last third of the book.

My final verdict? I enjoyed Special Topics in Calamity Physics, but also found it unsatisfying in many ways. If you’re into literary fiction or genre blends, and if you’re typically patient with authors’ debut novels, it’s worth a shot. Try it on audio. Avid mystery readers should look elsewhere.


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