Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a darkly hilarious coming-of-age novel, and a richly plotted tale of suspense told through its heroine's distinctive voice, Blue van Meer. After a childhood with her father (a man prone to aphorisms and meteoric affairs) moving from one academic outpost to anoth... er, Blue is clever, deadpan, and possessed of a vast lexicon of literary, political, philosophical, and scientific knowledge—and he's quite the cineast to boot. Blue falls in with a charismatic group of friends and their captivating teacher, Hannah Schneider in her final year of high school at the elite (and unusual) St. Gallway School in Stockton, North Carolina. But when the drowning of one of Hannah's friends and Hannah's shocking death itself lead to a confluence of mysteries, Blue is left with only her gimlet-eyed instincts and cultural references to guide her—or misguide her—to make sense of it all.
But most critically, sweet, never try to change the narrative structure of someone else's story, though you will certainly be tempted to, as you watch those poor souls in school, in life, heading unwittingly down dangerous tangents, fatal digressions from which they will unlikely be able to emerge. Resist the temptation. Spend your energies on your story. Reworking it. Making it better.
I was aware too how strange adults were, how theirs lives were vaster than they wanted anyone to realize, that they actually stretched on and on like deserts, dry and desolate, with an unpredictable, shifting sea of dunes.
Due to Jade's fortresslike manner, which, like any well-built castle, made access challenging, girls found her existence not only threatening but flat-out wrong. Although Bartelby Athletic Center featured the latest advertising campaign of Ms. Sturd's three member Benevolent Body-Image Club (laminated Vogue and Maxim covers above captions, You Can't Have Thighs Like This and Still Walk" and "All Airbrushing"), Jade would only have to swan by, munching on a Snickers to reveal a disturbing truth: You could have thighs like that and still walk. She emphasized what few wanted to accept, that some people did win Trivial Pursuit: The Deity Looks Edition, and there wasn't a thing you could do about it, except come to terms with the fact that you'd only played Trivial Pursuit: John Doe Genes and come away with three pie pieces.
The writing is clever, the text rich with subtle literary allusion. But while even the gimmicks work well (chapters are structured like a literature syllabus; hand-drawn visual aids appear throughout), they don’t compensate for the fact that The Secret History came first.
What seems to be a standard coming-of-age tale morphs into a murder mystery… then into a book of political intrigue, among other things. Nothing is what is seems in Pessl’s story, and almost every character — and the characters here sparkle and intrigue by turns — presents a puzzle, both to Blue and to the reader.