When a photogenic babe lands a whopping paycheck for her first novel, the grousing begins: Publishers will hype any rubbish if the author’s cute! Marisha Pessl, the latest author to stir this pot, is indeed a knockout. But so too is her frisky, smarty-pants debut, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, a 514-page escapist extravaganza packed with literary and pop culture allusions, mischievous characterizations, erotic intrigue, murders, and unstoppable (occasionally unruly) narrative energy.
Precocious teen narrator Blue van Meer has shuttled between rinky-dink college towns with her widowed professor father, Gareth, a Captain von Trapp look-alike prone to semi-ridiculous proclamations like ”America’s greatest revelation was not the atom bomb, not Fundamentalism, not fat farms, not Elvis, not even the quite astute observation that gentlemen prefer blondes, but the great heights to which she has propelled ice cream.” Not only is he a windbag (especially after a few bourbons), he’s a bit of a heel, romancing and dropping a string of clingy middle-aged women Blue nicknames ”June Bugs” for the pitiful way they throw themselves at him. Gareth’s affairs last ”anywhere between a platypus egg incubation (19-21 days) and a squirrel pregnancy (24-45 days),” always collapsing before they interfere with his cozy relationship with Lolita. Er, make that Blue.
The filial bond is gravely threatened when father and daughter settle in fictional Stockton, N.C., where Blue falls in with the high school’s most exclusive clique, five acerbic sophisticates (see Donna Tartt’s Secret History for their literary DNA) who orbit Hannah Schneider, the glamorous, sphinxlike film studies teacher.
Hannah keeps a copy of Charles Manson’s biography in her drawer, a collection of knives and machetes in her closet, and males ranging from rosy-cheeked boys to ravaged-looking older men whom she escorts to a fleabag motel. (Her obsessed acolytes know all about it, because they spy.) When Hannah throws a costume party, her latest swain drowns in the pool. And when she chaperones a student camping trip, before you can say Blair Witch Project, Blue stands face-to-face with a corpse dangling from a tree.
This delectably convoluted postmodern mystery balloons to incorporate false identities, Daddy, a 1970s radical group, butterflies, and Blue’s first, feverish crush. Or does it? Lest we take the book too seriously, Pessl’s final chapter is a tongue-in-cheek final exam that calls into question all Blue’s earnest conclusions, as well as our own.A-