Monday, January 21, 2008
monday book review: special topics in calamity physics, by marisha pessl

I finally got around to finishing Pessl's  debut, which seems to have met a steady stream of both critical acclaim and general annoyance following its 2006 release.  Well aware of the opinions of both camps, I tried to approach Special Topics... with an open mind, and I found myself wavering between loving it and wanting to hurl it across the room. The novel - at least in terms of length - is epic, but although the plot meanders considerably, it's essentially a murder mystery wrapped in coming-of-age drama.  Blue van Meer has spent her formative years bouncing around the country with her brilliant and pedantic father who seems hell-bent on creating a child who is every bit as brilliant and pedantic as himself. Although they rarely stay in one city for longer than a college semester,  Dr. van Meer finally gives in to his daughter's desire for stability by accepting a teaching position in a sleepy little town in North Carolina and enrolling her in St. Galloway - a ritzy prep school that reeks with pretension.  Here, Blue's major plans are to enjoy her senior year and clinch the title of class valedictorian, but when she catches the eye of Hannah Schneider - a mysterious, beautiful teacher who is the beloved leader and mentor of "The Bluebloods" (basically the richest, snottiest kids in school) - drama, intrigue and death are soon to follow. 

Again, it's been awhile since I've read something that was as enjoyable as it was frustrating. While the actual story was intriguing enough to keep me reading, I found the writing to be gimmicky and grossly overwritten.  I was constantly getting lost in endless strings of smiles, metaphors and parenthetical citations used, presumably, to prove how smart the narrator was (i.e. - A chandelier isn't "gaudy." Rather, it's "a gold, five-tiered chandelier...hung like an upside-down duchess shamelessly exposing to the paying public her ankle boots and froufrou petticoat."  Ugh.) But there are moments, especially after the first 150 or so pages, when Pessl seems to forget how witty, dazzling, and innovative she is trying to be and just writes, and these are the moments that keep me reading. Basically, is there considerable talent here?  Yes.  Would Pessl have benefited from more disciplined editing? Most definitely.

Marisha Pessl
2006, 514 pages

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Blogger Mary said...

The long winded writing is what made Love in the time of Cholera annoying for me. My sister loves that kind of stuff and recommended it to me. I much prefer Per Petterson's style. Simple and to the point.
Thanks for the review!

Blogger Mrs. White said...

I'm ashamed to admit that I've never read Love in the Time of Cholera. I've read other Garcia Marquez, but not that particular one. The movie trailer looks pretty magnificent, though, so perhaps I should tackle it before the film comes out...

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