Special Topics in Calamity Physics

An Expand Your Horizons Review by Mark

the best husband of a best friend for which a woman could ever ask

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I opened that smiling Amazon.com box to find “Special Topics in Calamity Physics”. As someone who spends most of his time reading textbooks, technical papers, and hard science fiction, this was sure to be something outside my normal experience. I managed to maintain a healthy optimism as I started the book. It was, after all, recommended by the same Literate Housewife who suggested that I read “Generation X” a number of years ago.

It didn’t take long before this optimism was no longer needed. I was drawn to the fascinating life of this strange girl with the strange name. The story is narrated by Blue van Meer, a girl unlike anyone I’ve met, yet strikingly familiar. She doesn’t seem lonely, despite a life of constant travel. Her only anchor through her life has been her father, an intelligent man who travels from university to university, working on his “latest book” and teaching batches of incompetent students.

Having only her father as reference, Blue’s ideas and goals are closely tied to her his. It’s impossible to say if she is incredibly self motivated, or if her passions come from dad. Either way, it’s clear that she is gifted. Within months of arriving at St. Gallway, the elite school where she spends her last year, she is head of her class. She recounts her life there, filtering her tale through lenses of great literature (Steinbeck, 1939, et al). In fact, the entire narration is punctuated with appropriate references to illustrate her point (Pessl, 2006).

Blue’s last year, however, isn’t the straight-line stroll to Valedictorian that her father predicted. With prodding from Hannah Schneider, one of the teachers at St. Gallway, she begins to attend social events. She meets a clique of charismatic kids who care more for gossip, games, and sex than studies. While it’s unlikely she would go so far as to call them friends, and certainly not in front of her father, their influence on her is strong. She finds a world outside of study and dad.

But Hannah’s affect on Blue isn’t limited to a few introductions…. nor is it limited to her subtle guidance / manipulation of the students in the clique. Hannah’s mysterious death comes as a surprising turn for Blue. From here, the book travels far beyond anything I had predicted when I began reading it a few short days before.

As I closed the cover for the last time, I felt a familiar pang of sadness. I feel it whenever I finish a book that I truly love. I feel a momentary loss. I will no longer be visiting this beautiful world that I’ve been enjoying. I realize that I owe Literate Housewife again, without whom I would have never been on such an adventure.

My only regret is that Marisha Pessl has not yet written anything else… and I must wait with everyone else until she does.


This is the inaugural guest post in my new Expand Your Horizons Reading Challenge. Click here for more information on how this started and how you can participate.


  • At 2008.08.23 15:34, Jena said:

    I think you and I really would make great friends; we at least have similar taste in books. I read this book on my honeymoon and loved it. And when I unpacked my boxes of books, I found that I’d already bought a copy and then I had two! (So I bookcrossed one to a friend.)

    • At 2008.08.26 19:56, Literate Housewife said:

      Jena, I am looking forward to reading through your blog. I hope that we become great friends, and I can always use new leads on great books!

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