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Special topics in calamity physics
Book
2006
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Trade Reviews

  Library Journal Review

Precocious Blue van Meer is used to moving around with her professor father, who travels from job to job and affair to affair. But she's not prepared for the consequences when both a friend and a favorite teacher die tragically. A much-touted debut; with a seven-city tour. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

  Booklist Review

After 10 years of traveling with her father, a perennial (and pedantic) visiting lecturer at various, obscure institutions of higher learning, Blue Van Meer finally settles in as a senior at the St. Gallway School in Stockton, North Carolina. There she is bemused to find herself part of a charmed circle of popular kids called the Bluebloods and the protege of the mysterious film-studies teacher, Hannah Schneider. When a friend of Hannah's dies at a party the kids have crashed, this extravagantly arch and self-conscious coming-of-age novel turns into a murder mystery that--although never as Hitchcockian as its publisher claims--is, nevertheless, almost compelling enough to warrant its excessive length. Intriguingly structured as a syllabus for a Great Works of Literature class, Pessl's first novel is filled with references to invented books--and to some real ones, too, including several by Nabokov. Overkill? You bet. But, as a result, the novel is generating a great deal of buzz that will excite the curiosity of readers who enjoy postmodern excesses and indulgences of this sort. --Michael Cart Copyright 2006 Booklist

  Kirkus Review

Donna Tartt goes postmodern in this eclectically intellectual murder mystery. Blue van Meer, daughter of a womanizing widower, has spent her entire life following her erudite father on six-month stints to the small posts he chooses at obscure universities. During her senior year in high school, though, she convinces him to let her stay put for the entire academic year, which she will spend at the St. Gallway School in Stockton, N.C. There, while immediately proving her academic prowess by besting the presumed valedictorian, she also finds herself courted by an intriguing faculty member, Hannah Schneider, and is reluctantly accepted into her group of student followers: Milton, Charles, Leulah and Jade, each of whom seems to be hiding something about their past. The group meets at Hannah's every Sunday for international cuisine and intellectual banter, and soon Blue is also going on social excursions with the girls and secretly lusting after Milton. Things go awry when Blue and her compatriots break into Hannah's house and witness the mysterious drowning of one of Hannah's friends. The drowning becomes a rallying cry for the group to find out more about their teacher's secret life. The plot thickens again when Hannah herself dies, leaving Blue to put the pieces together and determine the truth. Who was Hannah Schneider really? What was the nature of her various relationships? And why did she welcome Blue into her clique so readily? The writing is clever, the text rich with subtle literary allusion. But while even the gimmicks work well (chapters are structured like a literature syllabus; hand-drawn visual aids appear throughout), they don't compensate for the fact that The Secret History came first. Sharp, snappy fun for the literary-minded. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Summary
This mesmerizing debut, uncannily uniting the trials of a postmodern upbringing with a murder mystery, heralds the arrival of a vibrant new voice in literary fiction. Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a darkly hilarious coming-of-age novel and a richly plotted suspense tale told through the distinctive voice of its heroine, Blue van Meer. After a childhood moving from one academic outpost to another with her father (a man prone to aphorisms and meteoric affairs), Blue is clever, deadpan, and possessed of a vast lexicon of literary, political, philosophical, and scientific knowledge-and is quite the cineaste to boot. In her final year of high school at the elite (and unusual) St. Gallway School in Stockton, North Carolina, Blue falls in with a charismatic group of friends and their captivating teacher, Hannah Schneider. But when the drowning of one of Hannah's friends and the shocking death of Hannah herself lead to a confluence of mysteries, Blue is left to make sense of it all with only her gimlet-eyed instincts and cultural references to guide-or misguide-her. Structured around a syllabus for a Great Works of Literature class and containing ironic visual aids (drawn by the author), Pessl's debut novel is complex yet compelling, erudite yet accessible. It combines the suspense of Hitchcock, the self-parody of Dave Eggers, and the storytelling gifts of Donna Tartt with a dazzling intelligence and wit entirely Pessl's own.
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