Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessi & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & & lt;/span & Marisha Pessl's debut novel is many things at once: a murder mystery, a cross-country odyssey, and a coming-of-age story, all narrated by a precocious 16-year-old named Blue van Meer who has a fondness for annotating all her sources (both real and imaginary) and using a dizzying array of similes and metaphors. Blue comes by her academic tendencies honestly: She's the daughter of a political science professor, who teaches at two or three different colleges every year. Consequently, Blue, whose mother died when she was 5, has spent as much time traveling around the country in her father's blue Volvo as she has in the classroom. She's astounded when her father tells her they will stay in the same North Carolina town for her entire senior year of high school.
Blue enrolls in the elite St. Gallway School, where a clique of eccentric students, nicknamed the Bluebloods, reluctantly befriends her at the urging of their mentor, a charismatic film teacher named Hannah Schneider. As Blue becomes more involved with Hannah and the Bluebloods, the pace quickens, and the novel turns into an intriguing murder mystery that is so carefully plotted, readers may want to go back and reread the beginning to pick up more clues. At St. Gallway's, moreover, Blue develops some independence and becomes less in thrall to her father.
Structured like a syllabus to a college literature class, each chapter of Special Topics is the title of a major literary text -- Othello, Madame Bovary, A Room With a View -- and the episodes' events playfully relate to their titles. Chapter 4, "The House of the Seven Gables," describes the van Meers' move into their new home -- an ancient Tudor mansion. Chapter 9, "Pygmalion," chronicles Blue's makeover into a glamour girl. There's even an "all-inclusive final exam" at the end of the book.
Blue filters all her experiences through books, movies, paintings -- even album covers -- so that everything is associated with something else. Reading this, one is reminded of a line by Roland Barthes (surprisingly, a writer not mentioned in this novel) that an author's text is merely a "tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture."
One wishes that, at 514 pages, the novel could have been edited to eliminate some of its less successful similes. Partially, it may be a send-up of some aspects of academia, but mostly it's a light-hearted, highly entertaining and suspenseful read. Pessl is such a lively writer that Blue's unique, intellectual voice never sounds pedantic.