Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a hard book to put in a genre. Part coming of age novel, part murder mystery, with a heavy dose of conspiracy theory and with a uniquely twisted look on love, the novel is about 16 year old Blue van Meer, who spends most of her life driving between college towns with her father Gareth, a perpetually visiting professor, insists on moving from one podunk college to another, where his hands-on specialty in civil and guerrilla wars and frequent publications in small-run journals lend him a rakish mystique which some women (whom Blue nicknames “June Bugs”) find irresistible. Following the mysterious death of her butterfly-obsessed mother, Blue and her father, Gareth, embark, in another nod to Nabokov, on a tour of picturesque college towns, never staying anyplace longer than a semester. Their vagabond life, compounded by her father’s rigorous intellectual drilling (she refers to their long car trips as “Sonnet-a-thons” and “One Hundred Miles of Solitude: Attempting to Memorize ‘The Waste Land’”), has made Blue almost pathologically bookish. Gareth is fond of making oracular statements, which his daughter laps up as if they were Churchill’s: “Everyone is responsible for the page-turning tempo of his or her Life Story,” he tells her. And, he cautions, “Never try to change the narrative structure of someone else’s story.” Comfortably swaddled in her daughter-dad bubble, Blue does not know that her story is someone else’s. Only gradually does she learn that the frantic tempo of her life has been conducted by forces she does not suspect.
For Blue’s final year of high school (before her inevitable admission to Harvard), Dad announces that they’ll stay in one town for an unprecedented full year. He’s enrolled her in St. Gallway, an eccentric private school whose brochure boasts that it has “the highest number of graduates in the country who go on to be revolutionary performance artists.” Blue expects to remain by herself at this school as she has at the countless others, but to her surprise she is befriended by the much-envied clique known as “the Blue-Bloods,” and by the charismatic film teacher, Hannah Schneider, who presides over their group. Blue is fascinated by Hannah and her Lauren Bacall-like mystery and initially tries to set her up with her father, who surprisingly is not interested. Throughout all of her Saturday night dinners and conversations with Hannah, in the back of her mind she secretly hopes that Hannah ends up with her father.
But, as the reader knows from the first page of Pessl’s novel, a relationship is impossible. Hannah is dead, strangled by an electrical cord, her tongue “the cheery pink of a kitchen sponge.” Blue’s book is an attempt to untangle the mystery of her demise, from the sanctuary of Harvard University. Pessl structures Blue’s mystery like a kind of Great Books class, each chapter figuratively linked by its title to a well-known work of literature, from “Othello” (the story of how Blue’s father seduced her mother) to “The Woman in White” (the first meeting with Hannah), to “Deliverance” (a fateful camping trip). A professor is all-powerful, Gareth liked to tell his daughter, he puts “a veritable frame around life,” and “organizes the unorganizable.” Blue’s syllabus also includes a murder or two. Her book’s last pages are a final exam. You will be relieved to learn it is mostly multiple choice, and there is no time limit.
The book is 500 pages long, and the first 300 or so are fairly interesting but plodding. A little more than halfway through the book, however, SPECIAL TOPICS takes a turn for the better and becomes infinitely more interesting. After a number of other minor yet noteworthy calamities (that prove invaluable to the reader by the final exam), the Bluebloods go on a camping trip in the Great Smoky Mountains and Hannah Schneider winds up dead, dangling from a tree. What follows is an adrenalin-driven thrill ride that is so clever and so delightfully complicated that readers will surely be kept on the edge of their seats until the very end. And the best part is that the whodunit is never fully solved — or is it? At one point in the book, Gareth mentions hated absolute endings because it left nothing up to the imagination, and in a similar fashion, SPECIAL TOPICS encourages readers to develop their own conclusions. And when you finish reading the book, you’ll be solely tempted to turn back to page one and start again, determined to mince through all of the books veiled clues.