Special Topics in Calamity Physics
Honestly, this is a nightmare of a book, 661 pages and, sheer horror, a final exam for readers at the end. Pessl is hardly 30 years old, as far as I know, her father Austrian-born, which explains the surname, and he is a university professor, which explains 80% of the plot.
Pessl organises her story like a “Required Reading List”, each chapter being devoted to another world famous piece of literature. She starts with “Othello”, no less. In the novel Blue van Meer, the young heroine, follows her Dutch-born father, a professor of Political Science, round the United States to whichever university offers him a post. He inevitably starts an affair with a “June Bug”, as Blue calls his everchanging mistresses. She is a wunderkind with top grades at school and widely-read but lonely. Books are her friends.
We meet her at Stockton, North Carolina, where they stay for the longest period ever, 7 months, so that Blue can finish high school. And here, Hannah, a middle-aged teacher helps lonely Blue by admitting her to her clique of special students. Blue writes about everything in first-person, throwing in hair-splitting comparisons and quotes from every book she has read - and she has read them all - and, last not least, provides “visual aids” to illustrate her narrative. Itīs hard work to follow all that and now and again this reader here puts the book aside, exhausted. But on the other hand it is too fascinating to accompany poor righteous Blue, who believes everything her father says, and canīt live her own young life, like the others in her group do.
From the beginning of the story Pessl tells us, that the teacher Hannah will be murdered, and so it happens, in the middle of the night and a forest, with Blue as the last person to have seen her alive. Consequently her ”friends” suspect her. Her father mysteriously disappears and Blue is left alone and stubbornly uncovers the truth bit by bit, although it means that everything she has hold sacred is shattered to pieces. “The Secret History” by Donna Tart and “Flicker” by Theodore Roszan are not on Pesslīs reading list, but obviously served as models.