Thursday, February 28, 2008

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

This is the book my husband bought me for Christmas. Yes, I did actually finish it a long time ago, but have been waiting for some time to collect my thoughts properly. I have now admitted that this time will never come, so I might as well write what I can and ignore that pretentious nagging feeling at the back of my head, telling me that I shouldn’t bother unless I can produce world-class stuff. With that kind of thinking nothing gets done (like law thesises, incidentally – the lack of one with me as an author is weighing heavily on my mind lately; something needs to be done).

Special Topics of Calamity Physics is a real brick of a book, even as a paperback, with pages of laudatory quotes in the beginning. Our heroine, Blue, narrates in the first person from her college desk. She tells the story of what really happened to her during her dramatic senior year at high school in a small town. Blue has led an itinerary life together with her charismatic, highly intelligent and opinionated college professor father, after her mother’s death when she was a child. Since she’s changed schools several times every year she’s been rather isolated and has a close relationship to her father, who has trained and moulded her to be a prolific reader. Now she will spend her whole senior year in one school, to attain the goal of ending 1st and being chosen as valedictorian. Here she is drawn into a group of “cool kids” under the patronage of teacher Hannah Schneider, who is as charismatic and enigmatic as Blue’s own father in a way.

As the year progresses Blue becomes a part of the group, even though the other youngsters are resentful of her at first. She tries things she’s never tried before, drinking, make-up, she cuts and dyes her hair. After a man dies in an accident at a party at Hannah’s house, the relationship between her and the youngsters sours, and things start changing, ending in Hannah’s death (it’s okay to tell you, since Blue tells you in the beginning, don’t worry). So why did Hannah Schneider die, and how? This is what Blue sets out to tell you. I therefore first expected some sort of detective story. Half-way through the novel I’d come to the conclusion that it probably wasn’t crime fic at all but some sort of high school tale that Americans are so fond of, so when my husband asked me what I though of it when I was more than two-thirds through I held a long speech about how it seemed to be like Heathers, and I’m not sure I got it, since Heathers had been done dammit and what’s Christian Slater doing these days anyway. Then the book changed. I am not embarrassed to admit that I was really taken aback at the twist it took. I did not see it coming at all. However, I would like to point out that I couldn’t very well have predicted it, since some of the information needed isn’t given until towards the end (I may be wrong though. Remember, I read this with one hand while trying to nurse an interested baby most of the time.). So it turns out almost like a thriller at the end. A political thriller at that.

I’m not quite sure what to think of it all. It’s well written, to be sure. I have a slight quibble with the way Blue “footnotes” everything: she’ll describe someone and reference a book, to further clarify what she means I suppose, which is one way to emphasise how well-read she is, but still breaks up my reading flow a little. It’s clever though, and certainly different. Last book I read with such an extensive and unusual use of footnotes was Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. But did I like it? Did I enjoy it? Do I think about it now and then? I’m still not sure, and now it’s almost three months since I finished it. I didn’t think I was so rigid in my thinking, that I wanted books that fit into a certain mold, yet I was a bit annoyed with the sudden genre change towards the end. Would I recommend it? Yes, I think I would. I didn’t enjoy it as much I did Donna Tartt’s first novel (note to self – read the second one some day, even if it got worse reviews), and I compare the two because… well, there are similarities after all. But it did interest me, and if nothing else other people have to read it so I can discuss it with somebody.


Johanna said...

Donna Tartt you say? I will take note.

I was too annoyed by the Jonathan Strange book to even finish it (as far as I remember); does that mean I shouldn't even attempt this one? And if I *should* attempt it, do I need to own it if the urge to re-read strikes or can I just borrow yours (she said imploringly)?

bani said...

Oh borrow mine. It might annoy you, but not as much as Norell/Strange, because there are no written footnotes, nota bene (har har and sic). I may even have the Donna Tartt still. Somewhere.

Johanna said...

OK then, that does sound more bearable. The footnotes were what drove me up the wall.

Hopefully ze baby will let me read, I think I read a lot of books when N was tiny but my recollections are somewhat fuzzy.

Have you any recommendations for completely brainless reading, by the way? I was bored stiff in hospital last time, but I had nothing uncomplicated enough to read (they give me morphine; it makes me very very stupid) except one (1!) issue of Vi föräldrar.

bani said...

Anything by Janet Evanovich. You will love.

Johanna said...

Oh, I've read most of the Plum ones. I agree, very very amusing! Anything else? :-)

bani said...


Then I'm not sure.

Let me think. You still have THREE WEEKS LEFT after all. :P

Johanna said...

Three weeks, BAH! You must be the-opposite-of-exaggerating. (Understating - ah, the marvels of google.)