Friday, June 8

Special Topics in Calamity Physics – Marisha Pessl

Blue’s lepidopterist mother, Natasha Alicia Bridges van Meer (Blue was named for her favourite species - and the only kind her mother could catch - the Cassius Blue) died in a car accident when Blue was five; the only memento Blue has of her mother are her framed butterflies. For as long as she can remember, Blue and her father, noted Politican Science academic Gareth van Meer, have travelled across America. Never settling anywhere long, Gareth teaches on small campuses and picks up the next in a never-ending chain of short-term girlfriends Blue calls June Bugs – wan women who, despite Gareth’s clarity that he’s not interested in anything meaningful, all become pleading and needy.
So Blue is stunned when her father announces that they will reside in Stockton, North Carolina, for her entire senior year. Blue is a shoo-in for valedictorian – intelligent and erudite, Gareth has ensured that she is familiar with all the classics – and the continuity will be good for her socially.
A chance meeting with Hannah Schneider, an eccentric and mysterious teacher, brings Blue into contact with the Bluebloods, a collection of fellow students who enjoy a privileged but secret relationship with her. The Bluebloods are fascinated with Hannah – unbeknownst to her they spy on her monthly excursions to an unsavoury pub where, without fail, Hannah picks up a rough of one kind or another, takes him to a rent-by-the-hour motel, and kicks him out in the wee hours of the morning.
When Hannah persuades the Bluebloods to go camping one weekend, they are unenthusiastic but acquiesce. On the initial hike Hannah privately talks with each student individually – all but Blue. A little hurt, Blue recovers when, sitting by the camp fire, she notices Hannah stare meaningfully at her then jerk her head to one side. But before they can talk alone Hannah vanishes. And then Blue finds her, hanging by her neck from a piece of electrical cord. Traumatised, Blue runs and is found by nearby campers; the Bluebloods aren’t found until the following day.
Ostracised by those she thought were her friends, and unwilling to accept that Hannah would kill herself, Blue tries to work out what happened, and in the process uncovers a greater secret than she could ever have imagined.
This is an interesting book that I have had great difficulty reviewing. The book is divided into 36 chapters, each named after a work of literature, and culminates in a Final Exam; the style is unique – written in the first person it is literate and academic in nature – the text is littered with attributions and references, in a way that could be annoying but (for me at least) just missed, though I did find the heavy use of simile excessive and a little too clever at the cost of clarity in the text. Blue certainly takes to her heart her father's advice: "Always have everything you say exquisitely annotated, and, where possible, provide staggering Visual Aids." I certainly felt insufficiently well read, but that's not a particularly new experience for me, and I admit I didn't catch the plot similarities with Lolita, discovering this only when (after writing my review and feeling inadequate) I checked out what other readers had thought.

The death of Hannah, around which the plot is centred (and which is referenced in the first few pages) doesn’t occur until 336 pages into a dense 518 page novel, which allows the read to have a fairly comprehensive picture of Blue, her father, the Bluebloods and Hannah. But I wasn’t sure until the last couple of chapters, when everything starts to unravel, that I knew whether or not I liked reading Calamity Physics. I did, and I was particularly impressed with how meticulously woven the plot was - like Blue, I had no idea what was going on until she pieced it all together. This isn’t my favourite novel of the year, or even the month, and I don’t think I’ll feel the need to reread it anytime soon, but it’s well worth the experience, if only for Blue’s uniquely written voice and the really interesting twist. - Alex

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