Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Special Topics in Calamity Physics - Marisha Pessl

Initially Special Topics reads like a coming of age novel, or maybe teen angst. The main character, Blue Van Meer, is writing about her experiences in her last year of high school as a sort of "Epic"which you can imagine any dramatically inclined teenager could do, especially one who has obviously been through some life-changing experiences which seem to have left one of her former friends in rehab. But she is a teenager, so you make the obvious assumption that no matter what it is that she has been through, it isn't going to be nearly as dramatic as all that. She's been really protected by her academic father. They move frequently so she hasn't had many opportunities to make close friends the way most kids do.

For her final year of high school, they land in what seems like a nice little town, renting a much nicer house than they usually do. Blue is obviously extremely intelligent, but doesn't really seem to know how to interact with kids her own age. She reminds me a lot of myself in high school (which I suspect is pretty common), knowing that kids are usually mean, knowing that she is an outsider, but craving that feeling of belonging. The scenes where she is pretending to be much more drunk than she actually is, while secretly dumping her drinks in the garden. Not in order to fit in, but because appearing drunk lets you get away with sitting on the edge, observing things. It excuses the comments that arise from an odd sense of humor and a different perspective on the world because you've spent so much time in a book.

The strangest part of the first half of the story is the friendship between the odd little group of misfit teenagers and their teacher, Hannah Schneider, a wonderfully charismatic woman who has forced Blue to become part of their little clique, and continues to force the other to accept Blue even though they obviously don't get along particularly well. You know from the very beginning that the death of Hannah Schneider is going to be fairly central to the story, but somehow it is very easy to forget that is where the story is going. And even once Hannah dies, it seems like her death isn't even the biggest problem, it is the fact that the entire clique blames Blue for Hannah's death, and ostracizes her. Blue throws herself into investigating Hannah's apparent suicide, largely it feels as an attempt to exonerate herself, but also because there are enough clues left behind that don't really add up to suicide.

Up until this point, the story has been relatively normal - teen angst, left hand turn into murder mystery. And it isn't really all that much of a turn, since you've know from page 1 that it is coming. Then the book takes a turn for the extremely strange, which...took the book from something I had really enjoyed reading and turned it into something absolutely amazing. Even reading it a second time was fascinating. And the way Blue reacts to the whole, absolute unreal situation that has developed...seems so real. This story is actually an epic, as she claims at the very beginning, not merely a teenager overdramatizing something just slightly out of the ordinary.

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