Special Topics in Calamity Physics
sparkles. You note that each chapter is named for a classic work of literature and you brace yourself for something pointy-headed and self-important. There are times, few and far between, when the narrative gets a bit overwrought. But the world and characters Pessl has created brim with energy and mostly, that energy enlivens the story, it isn't wasted making the unnecessary point that the author is smarter than you are. This was a pleasant surprise.
Our heroine, the preposterously named Blue Van Meer (will color be a heavyhanded symbol in the story? It turns out, no, thankfully), has moved with her single dad to a new area and is attending a new school and, it's clear early on in the narrative, there will be interesting friends made, some terrible event endured, and you'll enjoy the story if you enjoy the characters and you won't if you don't. Throughout, the book reminded me of Donna Tartt's The Secret History, a book I'm quite sure Pessl read, probably more than once.
Secret History-like, Blue finds herself part of an exclusive clique, but against the wishes of other clique-ers. A teacher, Hannah Schneider, has arranged and is in charge of the group, and for reasons we and Blue will wonder about throughout the book, tries to force Blue into it. She does her best, though her effort is largely not reciprocated by the other students. We learn early on that Hannah will die in an apparent suicide, and that that's the event that will Change Everything for everyone. It was a risk revealing this up front, but realistic; Blue narrates the story and doesn't seem to have any reason to play hide-the-ball. Because you know in a broad sense what will happen, you examine the characters and their reactions and relationships and whether you enjoy the book has more to do with that than with solving the whodunit.
Happily, though, the whodunit plot isn't stale or predictable, and the story itself rewards you too. We know early in the book that Blue has real father issues, and that Hannah will die, and that everyone will hate Blue afterward; knowing those things informs our reading but doesn't undermine the story. The energy and confidence of Pessl's narrative draw you in and delight you and her plot engages you. It's a book you wish wasn't over once you're done.
As a debut, Special Topics shows tremendous promise. Pessl's Night Film is scheduled to be published in 2010. I'm going to get it as soon as it's available.