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Book Review: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

There have been plenty of books narrated by wise teenage girls, but it's possible there's never been a protagonist quite so literary as Blue Van Meer. The voice of Marisha Pessl's debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Blue was raised on books and black-and-white movies in random small towns across America while her professor father jumped from college to college. She's socially awkward and generally too smart for her own good, but her research skills serve her well when she's thrust into the center of a mystery that only she can unravel.

Early in the story, Blue's father decides they'll spend Blue's entire senior year in one town: Stockton, North Carolina, where Blue is expected to become valedictorian of her class at the prestigious St. Gallway School and secure admission to Harvard. Before classes begin, Blue randomly meets Hannah Schneider, a St. Gallway teacher who facilitates Blue's adoption into the Bluebloods, a clique of misfit teens who idolize Hannah and grudgingly accept Blue. The story gets dark from there, so

It's not a spoiler to say that Hannah dies: It's on the book's first page, and the manner of her death is spelled out on the jacket's front flap. But how the story unfolds is intriguing, putting Blue's tenuous friendships in jeopardy and leading to a clever twist ending that I never saw coming.

The trouble with Special Topics is that it can be too clever for its own good, all stylistic charms (pen-and-ink sketches, chapter headings named after Great Books, even a final exam) without a lot of substance to fill its 500 pages. It feels more like a game than a novel, especially in the first half, when the plot is at its weakest. I found myself wondering which of the literary references I was supposed to get and which I could discard, which of the tedious scenes with the Bluebloods I'd want to remember for later and which I could just skim. And I waffled between wishing the sharp, smart Blue were my friend and wanting to tell her to stop being such a precocious little brat.

But ultimately, I'm glad I invested the time to finish Special Topics; the mystery surrounding Hannah's death becomes much more engrossing. And Pessl's writing is lively and fun — her description of a bland boy who develops a crush on Blue as "creamed spinach and stale hot dog" still has me laughing. Special Topics can be frustrating and exhausting, but it's worth plowing through to see what happens to Blue in the end.

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