Calamity Physics


I bought Marisha Pessl’s debut novel because of the title: Special Topics in Calamity Physics. It seemed such an alluring and exciting name I just had to discover what adventures it contained within its black covers.

The book is a very literary novel, and Marisha (I feel that she is young enough for me to call her this) has even drawn some visual aids to  help her readers’ imaginations. It is very clear that Marisha has had a lot of time on her hands as a teenager as she seems to have read every book – obscure and famous – under the sun.

The entire novel is divided into chapters that are called after famous books. We kick off with Othello, for example, (and yes, there is a murder in the first chapter), go through Wuthering Heights, Women in Love, Deliverance and end up with The Secret Garden and Metamorphoses.

It’s one of those brainy novels, featuring teenager Blue van Meer, an ‘apologetically owl-like girl’ in glasses, who discovers the dead body of her teacher hanging by a piece of electrical cord. The book is erudite – full of references to dictionaries, events and reference books, as well as littered with similes that swoon and die on every page like the piled-up corpses of lemmings as they leap to their death off a high cliff.

So, it takes quite a while to get used to this baroque, elaborate style of writing, and the story takes some time to get started. That promised corpse doesn’t show up again until we are three-quarters of the way through the book!

I did enjoy the book: it built up in momentum and sucked me into its clever, intricate web of glittering metaphors and plot – and I was more than willing to be its victim.

Here is an example of the novel’s very special style:

“The restaurant with its shines and clinks, its fanned napkins and resplendent forks (in which you could identify microscopic things lodged in your teeth), calamityits dowager duchess hanging there, desperate to be let down to go dance a quadrille with an eligible man of society-it all felt indifferent and damned, hopeless as a Hemingway short story teeming with mean conversations, hopes lost between their bullet point words, voices voluptuous as rulers.” What a fantastic way to describe a chandelier: a dowager duchess hanging there. Pure magic!

The last quarter of the book sped like a moving bullet towards the end: breath-taking, fast-paced, exciting, and for me – a shocking ending that took me by surprise.

I came away sated as if I had eaten a ten-course meal with three desserts thrown in.


10 thoughts on “Calamity Physics

  1. I really enjoyed that book too. Have you seen her website?? Quite impressive:

    I was planning to do something similar for my debut book but the publishers were rather, um, boring and the whole thing ended with my taking back my manuscript since they wanted to change EVERY single thing. “Den är mycket välskriven men vi måste ju SÄLJA också.”


  2. she sounds like one of those kids that “does not fit into a typical high school setting”…. always gone somewhere else in her head…thank goodness no one (or no system) quashed her talent or her dream…because now we all get to benefit from it!


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