Review: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Special Topics in Calamity PhysicsSpecial Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love the North Carolina mountains. This is set in the North Carolina mountains, so I thought I’d like it for that reason. But the mountains don’t really play a large role in this book. Pessl doesn’t focus on putting the reader into the natural physical setting, even when the natural setting influences the plot. I was imagining something akin to Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, but this was a much more internal tale.

When I looked at the spine of the book, I was a little nervous because there was a little “Mystery” sticker on there. I’m wary of genre fiction. Well, any genre besides “literary fiction.” But I really enjoyed An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears, and that had the same little sticker, so I pressed on.

Within two pages, I was drawn in by the language. Pessl’s use of puns and odd metaphors (comparing her dad’s girlfriends to candies, for example) was so satisfying to me as a reader.

The book had some of the clumsiness of a first novel, and I think Pessl could have edited out some of the exposition, but none of this detracted from my pleasure in reading the book.

The other thing that drew me in, which an author can’t predict (or at least I hope they can’t) is that Blue’s dad really reminded me of my dad. Blue and her father had the same sort of intellectually competitive relationship my dad and I had when I was growing up. The way Blue describes waiting for her dad’s feedback on a term paper really hit home for me. I won’t say much because I don’t want to ruin the ending, but this wasn’t the first time I considered that my dad might have a double life, but this book really heightened that sensation.

In a sense, this was a coming-of-age story. The main character went from total reliance on her father, to identifying more with her peer group (yet still retaining the sense that her father was divine or in some other way above all other humans), to realizing that her father is human and fallible, and then to discovering her own meaning as an individual separate from her parents.

One thing I wasn’t totally comfortable with: the book began with an introduction that gave us Blue in the present day. Then we went back in time more than a year and followed Blue’s development over the course of that year. The trouble I have is that I’m not sure that the calm and ease and self-possession of the Blue at the end of the book matches with the insomniac, anxious Blue of the introduction, which are supposed to be the same character at the same time.

At the end of the book, though, I felt like turning back to the first page and reading it again, which to me shows just how compelling this story was.

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3 Replies to “Review: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl”

  1. Your the first reviewer who said this was set in the NC mountains. I live in NC and because of my boyfriend’s deep love of cold weather we are always in the NC Mountains. This makes me so much more excited to read this book. Thank you, thank you, for your lovely review! I have it in my next spot on the to-read pile so I hope I love it!


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