Pessl Debuts with 'Special Topics in Calamity Physics'

Special Topics in Calamity Physics may sound like the title for a science textbook. But it's actually an audacious first novel by 27-year-old newcomer Marisha Pessl.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY.

By now, a new batch of freshmen is settling in at colleges and universities around the country. It is a thrilling and traumatic time in a young person's life with many, many possibilities. And that's why it makes such an excellent setting for a new debut novel that is get a lot of attention.

The author is Marisha Pessl. Here is DAY TO DAY book critic Veronique de Turenne.

VERONIQUE DE TURENNE reporting:

In the opening pages of Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics, her heroine, college freshman Blue van Meer, causes a scene in her English seminar and bolts from the classroom. It's soon revealed that a year earlier Blue was the first to happen upon the dead body of her high school film teacher, Hannah Schneider. That's a key detail but it hardly registers. You're busy relishing the discovery that, lord, 27-year-old Marisha Pessl can write.

Blue, the narrator of Pessl's daring and often dazzling first novel, suffers a sort of hyper, intellectual Tourette's Syndrome. The girl hasn't met a phrase she couldn't turn. In fine murder mystery tradition, the story unfolds in flashback.

We meet Blue at age 16, a brainiac, an aspiring cynic, and a breathtaking snob. Her mother is dead and her heart belongs to daddy, a womanizing poli-sci professor. His nomadic teaching career has landed them in a small North Carolina town. Blue is enrolled in a private high school and quickly falls under the spell of the charismatic and doomed Hannah. Here's Blue seeing Hannah for the first time.

She had an elegant sort of romantic bone-sculpted face, one that took well to both shadows and light, even at their extremes. She was older than I had realized, somewhere in her late thirties. Most extraordinary, though, was the air of a Chateau Marmont bungalow about her, which I'd never before witnessed in a person, only while dad and I watched Jezebel into the early hours of the morning.

Blue filters her life through a literary lens. Pessl titles each chapter after a classic novel. Brave New World, Pygmalion, Bleak House and Paradise Lost telegraph the action. Citations, annotations, and footnotes scattered across every page of special topics in Calamity Physics make it look more like a doctoral thesis than a novel.

At first it's funny. Pessl's got a seductively wicked wit. She can throw Blue in with the school's reigning alphas, the handsome guy, the terrifying beauty, and the mysterious guy no one can figure out. Blue skewers them with enthusiasm. By about page 300, the Dorothy Parker routine has worn thin and we're hungry for some real action.

Pessl suddenly veers off. She drops the coming of age saga and roars into the heart of the mystery: who killed Hanna and how does that murder intersect with Blue's life. The answers, when they emerge, are so different in tone from what came before that it's like Pessl stitched together two separate books.

The first is the work of a prodigy showing off a little. The second is a dark and twisty tale. Pessl excavates the layers of clues she's strewn about her landscape before the story careens to an abrupt close. With Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl reveals a thrilling and fearless voice. A writing career is launched, like it or not, at warp speed.

CHADWICK: The book is Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Our reviewer is Los Angeles writer Veronique de Turenne.

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