There are some books that hurt your brain. For me, those are usually books with numbers in them. Then there are books that hurt your brain in a very, very good way. Marisha Pessl’s debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, is one of those books.
The novel tells the story of Blue Van Meer, an erudite high school student who has been raised solely by her brilliant college professor father since the day her mother was killed in a car accident. Most of the novel centers on Blue’s experiences at an exclusive prep school where she falls in with an elite clique and their mysterious teacher/leader, Hannah. Early on, the plot seems to have an almost incestuous similarity to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, but about halfway through, Calamity Physics takes a mind-bending turn that makes you sit up, slack-jawed, thinking, “Huh, I never saw that coming.”
Although it pains me to make this comparison, especially with a writer who looks like she’s 19, has perfect hair and an IQ that would make Alex Trebek weep in over-accented French-Canadian, Pessl’s style has a decidedly Nabokovian flair. Her prose possesses an energy, a delicious fervor, that makes the reader giddy. There’s nothing better than grabbing the front-row seat on a verbal carnival ride, replete with brow-furrowing references, word play, humor and playful didacticism. For a word junkie, it’s a thrill.
At times, of course, the erudition becomes perhaps a bit too much and Calamity Physics drags just a smidge here and there, but these are minor and very forgivable transgressions – a small price to pay for a book that makes you want to start re-reading it the very second you conquer its last page.