Special Topics in Calamity Physics

I suspect that this is a “love it or hate it” kind of book. In the end, I mostly loved it. I think that was largely because I listened to it on audiobook. I tend to think of listening to audiobooks as “cheating”. It doesn’t really feel like reading to me. Before I get a lot of comments from people who love audiobooks, I’ll say that this has more to do with the fact that I am a very visual learner than anything inherent in audiobooks. I have trouble paying attention and remembering things I hear. It can be pleasant and informative at the time but if I don’t take copious notes or read the same thing in a written format later, I will probably forget it. At the same time, we always have an audiobook going in the car for the kids. Over the years we have listened to a lot of great books together. I have to drive a fair amount for work and I recently realized I could redeem this time by getting audiobooks for myself so I decided to give it a try.

I hadn’t heard of this book but the title caught my eye and intrigued me. The narrator is Blue Van Meer, a high school senior who has had an unusual upbringing by her political science professor father, Gareth Van Meer. Since the death of Blue’s mother, they have traveled the country, moving every 3-6 months, until Gareth decides to stay in one place for Blue’s senior year. She starts at a small private school and soon becomes part of an exclusive clique that revolves around a popular teacher at the school, Hannah Schneider. The central event in the novel is the sudden death of Hannah. (No worries, this is not a spoiler, it’s on the book jacket.) Blue is swept up into investigating Hannah’s death and other mysterious events in her life. (Ok, now I’m being vague to avoid spoilers.)

It may sound like this is a mystery novel and I suppose it could technically be classified that way. However, it is not at all a traditional mystery, primarily because the ending is ambiguous. The book is structured like a Great Books course with every chapter taking the name of a great work of literature. Blue is a precocious, widely read narrator and the novel is peppered with references and quotes (some real, some fake).  Here’s where we get to why my experience with this novel might have been different as an audiobook. The references are frequent and often distracting. There are long rambling descriptions of everything and constant flashbacks and asides. Blue never says something is “red” but instead it’s “the color of a 1930s Hollywood starlet’s lipstick”. (I just made that one up but it’s very Blue like.) All of these techniques are clever and even charming but they are also distracting and somewhat annoying. I suspect that the author, Marish Pessl (who wrote this at age 24 as her debut novel) is just as erudite and well-read as her character. At times I felt that Pessl was showing off for the sake of showing off and I think I would have gotten more tired of the cleverness and cuteness if I’d been reading the 500+ pages Pessl takes to tell the story.

However the audiobook reader, Emily Janice Card, is extraordinary. She becomes Blue and her performance is well worth the 21 hours (and 17 CDs) of listening. I do know that there are visual aids ( I assume sketches) in the print version but I didn’t feel like I missed anything in the story.

So who would I recommend this book to? I would recommend the audiobook to anyone. I think people who like a challenge or who are very well-read and will get the many literary references or who enjoy the unique/quirky/clever would probably enjoy the print version.

Pessl created a website for the book, which is fun to look at if you’ve read the book.

4 thoughts on “Special Topics in Calamity Physics

  1. I love this book, but totally agree that in discussing it with other people it is definitely a love or hate book. I thought it was so original and unlike anything else I’d read in a way that I enjoyed. Great review!

  2. Pingback: On My Nightstand | Supratentorial

  3. Pingback: Best of 2012 in Books | Supratentorial

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