Murder, She Wrote Surprisingly Well

According to a grumbling few, Marisha Pessl’s tangled debut novel “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” does not deserve to be published. Certain critics and blogsters credit the unusually pretty author—and her jacket photo—for capturing publisher Viking’s attention.

As The New York Times noted in August, the book is the latest controversy in a growing literary conspiracy in which powerhouse companies like Viking use an author’s pedigree rather than their talent as their principle publishing criterion. Resist the urge to make another Opal Mehta joke.

The naysayers are wrong about Pessl. Her intricate creation showcases her tremendous writing abilities and suggests she will stick around the bestseller list for years. Pessl cites—not internalizes—her many sources and churns out a cleverly constructed murder mystery novel with respectable scholarly flourishes.

Unlike “Prep,” Curtis Sittenfeld’s decent but hackneyed portrayal of those ruthless pre-college years, “Special Topics” minimizes the ‘to be or not to be’ virgin dilemmas and queen bee versus wannabe showdowns. While that approach worked for the movie “Mean Girls,” the intellectually inclined will relish Pessl’s knack for language, unconventional arrangement, and substantial academic references.

“Special Topics” revolves around the brilliant, budding Blue van Meer and her father Gareth, a charismatic professor and Casanova. For reasons unforeseen, the pair settles down at a North Carolina private school where Blue meets Hannah Schneider. Schneider is more than a teacher; she’s “a shade of grey,” and her sudden death, which Pessl reveals in the first chapter, catalyzes a series of peculiar events. We follow Blue as she Nancy Drews around campus, collecting specimens from her past and the not-so-distant pasts of others in efforts to unravel the twisted circumstances surrounding the fatality.

Naturally, Harvard figures prominently into the plot. Take pride in Pessl’s characterization, which includes descriptions of brainiacs, rabble rousers, pre-med roommates named Soon-Jin, and pretentious Teaching Fellows who gesture “as if holding an invisible parasol, pinky outward” alike.

The chapters are named after famous books, such as “A Moveable Feast” and “Metamorphosis.” Besides flagging important themes for the reader, the titles make up a required reading list more expansive than an average English class. Pessl transforms nouns to verbs (“triple-lutzed”, “couch potatoed”), recites “Casablanca” and German poetry, and boasts an impressive and oft-quoted literary collection; she peppers the text with nods to real historical heroes (Winston Churchill) and imagined ones (“the late great Horace Lloyd Swithin (1844-1917), British essayist, lecturer, satirist and social observer”). Several hand-drawn visual aids—the astute observations of our protagonist—are scattered throughout the text. A final exam is included for the detail-oriented and/or competitive reader.

Always wanted to strut across campus with a “Physics” book? Now’s the chance. Don’t let an attractive outward appearance (or any notions of intrinsic difference) deter you from picking up this novel.

—Reviewer Lindsay A. Maizel can be reached at lmaizel@fas.harvard.edu.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics
By Marisha Pessl
Viking Adult
Out Now