Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
Reading Challenge: A New York Times Bestseller
Warning: this book inspired a few strong feelings so things could get spoilery somewhere along the way. I’ve tried to keep it vague but you may pick up some hints.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics has been on my to-read list for a long time, possibly since it came out. I remember reading a blurb and thinking it was about a weird, smart girl at college with some mystery thrown in and therefore it was right up my alley. I even think I had the impression that the heroine, Blue, got involved with her dad’s college class and it all Changed Her Life. Somehow I was picturing a Libby on Wednesday but for adults.
I don’t know what blurb I was reading, but that was pretty much wrong. Sure, Blue probably fits the “weird smart girl” description, but she’s in high school, her dad’s a professor, and he doesn’t have much to do with her school or does he? I got that pretty much right away, that I had to revise my expectations of what the book was about (not the last time I had to do that). That was the first thing I realized. The second thing I realized was that I really hated all of the characters, yet wanted to keep reading.
I’ve said it before: I need somebody I like to get through a book. They don’t have to be likeable people I’d want to befriend in real life, but they do need to be a character I’m willing to spend time with. And I didn’t want to spend time with any of these people, not even Blue. My feelings towards them, especially in the first couple hundred pages, ranged from mild irritation to massive dislike. That’s usually enough to make me put a book down for good. Yet this managed to be just as absorbing as it was frustrating, and that was the great success of Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Yes, towards the end it was like going for a long run – just grit your teeth and keep going – but I did keep going, for some mysterious reason, and I made it through.
Let’s talk characters for a minute. Blue is surrounded by great posers (from inside her head, we can’t tell if she’s one of them). The greatest poser of them all is her father, a womanizing, pretentious, bullying, grandiose, larger-than-life liar. I’m willing to award him a medal for Great Character, but only if you keep him far, far away from me. The other great poser is Hannah Schneider, the “it girl”-type film teacher who keeps a collection of teenagers under her spell. We’ll get to her in a minute. The other posers are Blue’s fellow teens, Jade, Leulah, Charles, Milton and Nigel. They pose, preen, and pretend and hang on every word out of Hannah’s mouth. I couldn’t stand them, either (exception to follow) and when Jade recounted a harrowing collective experience in the woods I actually started laughing, although I don’t believe the scene was supposed to be funny, because I was picturing this:
I’m sorry, he panicked and fell off a cliff? I’m sure that’s awful. No, no, I’m not laughing. I swear. These are tears of empathy. I’m snickering with you.
If the focus of the book had remained on the teens, the title of my review would have been “Horrible Children,” because they were. But Hannah Schneider and Blue’s dad and other adults interfered, and boy, did they ever. There were multiple scenes where I wanted to scream at them “these are children, you sick, twisted, self-absorbed assholes!” They did a lot that would have been unforgivable in reality. Lucky for them they’re in a bittersweet coming-of-age story (or are they?).
Now, Hannah Schneider was a major character and Blue liked to remind us how magnetic and mysterious and “it” Hannah was. She wanted to appear like this to the teens, and apparently did.
Now, to give the book credit, there are vague gestures at how creepy and disturbing it is for an adult to need a collection of teenagers surrounding and admiring and wanting her. But even seen through Blue’s eyes, I never found Hannah fascinating, just creepy and sad and unforgivable, and the way she kept insisting that Hannah was just so magnetic kind of spoiled whatever allure or “it” the character might have possessed if we could have seen it. Rather than being told about it again and again. That to me was what made Blue’s dad the successful character and Hannah not so much.
The only character I thought contained some element of “it” and charm and interest was actually Nigel, one of the teens. I wanted him to have more screen time, once I got straight which one was Nigel and which was Milton. I actually wondered about him and thought he stole his scenes. Aside from Blue, he seems to be the only one who isn’t completely under Hannah’s spell, and he seems less needy and fragile than the others – or, just as needy and fragile but in a more interesting way. I give him First Runner-Up in the Great Characters pageant, and he can actually come over for a cup of tea, as long as he doesn’t stay too long.
Now I can’t talk too much about plot without running right into spoilers. But I do have to mention the third-act twist, which was where I went “oh, I guess I thought I was reading this one book but now it turns out it was something else all along.” There were hints throughout that make it all consistent in hindsight, so I can’t complain or mutter loudly about “so I guess M. Night Shyamalan got final edits, huh.” Some of the hints were fairly pronounced. So I asked myself “self, why didn’t you see this coming?” The answer was “because I didn’t trust the author to explain any of this, so I ignored it all.” I thought Marisha Pessl was going to sail off into the sunset and blithely abandon us with all our questions, feeling like we just weren’t smart enough. To give her credit, she did explain, mostly, and reserved that exit for one of her characters.
So, verdict? I won’t read it again. I loathed almost all of the characters. On the flip side, the book was put together with a lot of skill and had some of the magnetism I didn’t see in Hannah. It also had a cinematic quality in spite of the citations and literary references, and would probably make a decent movie. I’ll remember it. But I’ll remember it as something to be admired from a distance, rather than loved up close.
Recommended pairing: Bourbon, obviously.