three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
25-Nov-Dec-2006
user_rating: 
0

A-Special Topics Calamity PhysicsThe itinerant Blue van Meer and her widowed academic father spend no more than a semester at any university. During her senior year, they settle down at a small elite school in Stockton, North Carolina. Precocious and more than willing to show off her range of knowledge, Blue soon falls under the spell of a coterie of intellectual eccentrics, the Bluebloods, led by the charismatic teacher Hannah Schneider. When the group crashes a party at Hannah’s house, they witness a drowning—and another shocking death. Determined to find out more about her teacher and the Bluebloods, Blue uses her wit and intellect to uncover the truth.
Viking. 528 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 067003777X

San Diego Union-Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Imagine a satiric tour de force culminating in serial nightmare, narrated by the super-articulate teenager who is living it—and who must survive it intact. … The entire central episode concerning Blue, Hannah and her five pets is itself almost a little novel, and in less ambitious hands, might have been sufficient unto itself." James Leigh

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Whatever you do, don’t skip the [finale], which synthesizes questions raised throughout the novel. On a second read-through, the first chapter proves that, beneath the verbal flamboyance, Pessl’s plotting was meticulous from the start." Yvonne Zipp

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The book’s real brilliance doesn’t become clear until the very end. … There are many wonderful young writers out there, but it’s always refreshing to find another with such confidence, who takes such joy in the magical tricks words can perform." Hillary Frey

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Whether [Pessl] is reinventing, satirizing or dissecting the conventions of prep lit, she has confined herself to a small canvas and a wearyingly familiar world. Or so it seems. … In the guise of asking questions, Ms. Pessl resoundingly answers a big one: yes, she knew precisely what she was doing all along." Janet Maslin

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Part mystery, part suspense, and part psychological drama, this is, at its heart, a book about relationships—both real and imagined—and the desperate need to belong. It’s too clear that Pessl is expertly pulling the strings, which makes the whole world of the novel feel a little too signed, sealed, and delivered for the reader’s total satisfaction." Caroline Leavitt

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3 of 5 Stars
"While The Secret History was dark and meditative, a psychological thriller with enough weight that I still remember the novel more than a dozen years after reading it, Special Topics leaves a much smaller imprint despite its physical heft." Vikas Turakhia

Hartford Courant 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Old people, Texans, parents, teachers, police officers, newscasters, passing motorists, cheerful people—the list of those who seem to deserve only ridicule is exhausting. … These endless references to literature and art, real and fictional, get tedious." Jeanne A. Leblanc

Critical Summary

With a murder that occurs in the opening pages and a narrator who joins an elite clique of students, Special Topics bears resemblance to Donna Tartt’s 1992 classic, The Secret History—as the novel’s publisher is more than happy to remind us. Critics call this comparison a publicity coup, as the two novels differ greatly in narration, orchestration, and tone. Organized as a "Great Books" course, the novel requires careful attention (and literary knowledge) from its readers, especially when Blue spouts esoteric tidbits. Although most critics were utterly compelled by Marisha Pessl’s debut novel, a few thought it mean-spirited and too smart for its own good. "A 500-page headache is as possible as a bracing joyride," notes the New York Times.