BKMT READING GUIDES

Special Topics in Calamity Physics
by Marisha Pessl

Published: 2006-08-03
Hardcover : 514 pages
12 members reading this now
16 clubs reading this now
4 members have read this book
"Marisha Pessl's SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS is the most flashily erudite first novel since Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated ... A whirling, glittering, multifaceted marvel, delivered in an irrepressibly smart and flamboyant new voice ... Q: Is SPECIAL TOPICS IN ...
No other editions available.
Add to Club Selections
Add to Possible Club Selections
Add to My Personal Queue
Jump to

Introduction

"Marisha Pessl's SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS is the most flashily erudite first novel since Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated ... A whirling, glittering, multifaceted marvel, delivered in an irrepressibly smart and flamboyant new voice ... Q: Is SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS required reading for devotees of inventive new fiction? A: Yes." —The New York Times

This mesmerizing debut, uncannily uniting the trials of a postmodern upbringing with a murder mystery, heralds the arrival of a vibrant new voice in literary fiction

Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a darkly hilarious coming-of-age novel and a richly plotted suspense tale told through the distinctive voice of its heroine, Blue van Meer. After a childhood moving from one academic outpost to another with her father (a man prone to aphorisms and meteoric affairs), Blue is clever, deadpan, and possessed of a vast lexicon of literary, political, philosophical, and scientific knowledge—and is quite the cineaste to boot. In her final year of high school at the elite (and unusual) St. Gallway School in Stockton, North Carolina, Blue falls in with a charismatic group of friends and their captivating teacher, Hannah Schneider. But when the drowning of one of Hannah's friends and the shocking death of Hannah herself lead to a confluence of mysteries, Blue is left to make sense of it all with only her gimlet-eyed instincts and cultural references to guide—or misguide—her.

Structured around a syllabus for a Great Works of Literature class and containing ironic visual aids (drawn by the author), Pessl's debut novel is complex yet compelling, erudite yet accessible. It combines the suspense of Hitchcock, the self-parody of Dave Eggers, and the storytelling gifts of Donna Tartt with a dazzling intelligence and wit entirely Pessl's own.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.

Excerpt

No Excerpt Currently Available

Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions from the Publisher's Reading Guide:

Blue describes herself as a “Jane Goodall,” an observer not a main actor. She is quiet, in thrall to her father, bookish, and solitary. What did you think of her when we first meet her? How does she change over the course of the novel? At the end, what new characteristics has she acquired?


Her father, Gareth van Meer, is her opposite: charming and callous, verbose and secretive. He dazzles women, is adored by his students, and is completely committed to his daughter. Yet there are clues that all is not right with Gareth. Go back to some passages in the book where Blue hints that he is hiding something, such as when she describes her frightening apprehension, at the age of eleven, that he is a “terrifying, red-faced stranger bearing his dark, moldy soul” (p. 33). What is your opinion of him at the novel’s conclusion?


The relationship between Blue and her father changes over Blue’s senior year. At the start she loves and trusts him unconditionally, but at the end she has hard questions for him. How does Blue’s attitude toward him begin to change? Does he alter the way that he treats her? Try to imagine their future relationship; how might they feel toward each other?


The death of Hannah Schneider, movie-star beautiful and charismatic, is the mystery at the heart of the novel. Who was Hannah Schneider? What does Blue learn about her past, and about how they are linked? Do you have sympathy for Hannah? Was she well-intentioned or do you think she was disturbed and dangerous?


Hannah takes Blue under her wing and includes her in the group of students, the Bluebloods, that she has befriended and mentored. Why is she so interested in Blue? How does she encourage Blue to act? Try to think of what she provides for each of them that they wouldn’t otherwise have, the way she “reads” each of them “so you thought you were her favorite paperback” (p. 322). Is she a good influence on Blue and the others?


Small-town America is also a subject of this book; Gareth is a “perennial visiting lecturer,” who raises Blue in a series of obscure towns throughout America. Think back to some of the places that they have lived, and the accompanying Americana—the Wal-Marts, chain restaurants, and suburbs that Blue and her father drift through. How would you describe this America? How is it different from other, more mainstream, depictions of the country? Do you recognize these places? What do you think Blue thinks of them?


Zach Soderberg seems to Blue at first to be bland and simple, a regular guy who does not attract her as the wild and nonconformist Bluebloods do. But what does Zach offer that the others cannot? What do you think he sees in Blue? Why do you think the Bluebloods are so disparaging toward him? What role does he play in Blue’s transformation?


Blue calls her father’s endless stream of romantic conquests “June Bugs,” saying “Dad picked up women the way certain wool pants can’t help but pick up lint” (p. 29). What is her relationship to some of these women like? Does she grow more sympathetic to them? Consider some of the specific encounters Blue has with women Gareth is involved with. What does the incident with “Kitty,” in particular, teach her?


The Bluebloods are mesmerizing but merciless and are at first cruel even to Blue. How would you describe them as a clique? Individually? Which of them grow more sympathetic, and which become kinder toward Blue? Are any of them redeemed by the end of the story?


The relationship between ideology and violence is a subtext that turns into a main theme. Who is particularly ideological or political in this book? What do they believe in and advocate for? Try to trace Gareth van Meer’s beliefs, in particular, by returning to earlier passages in the novel where Blue mentions his ideas, reading material, or lectures.


At the end of the book, Blue is faced with a hard choice about the information she has uncovered. How does she act and why? Though he never says, do you think her father is proud of her ultimate decision about the secret she uncovers? What does her decision, which costs her plenty, tell you about Blue’s morals and inner strength? What would you have done?


Much of the investigation that Blue undertakes depends on her interpreting various clues and events correctly. Sometimes she succeeds, sometimes she fails. Who attempts to mislead her, and how do they do it? What enables her to grow better at understanding the machinations of the adults around her? Do you agree with her final assessment of the mystery at the heart of her origins and of the novel? Or do you agree with Gareth that “we are under an invincible blindness as to the true and real nature of things” (p. 261)?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
  "All over the place, too much to look up!"by nadjaj (see profile) 07/01/08

This was a tough book to just sit back and relax. It's work to read it, and may or may not be worth the effort...

 
  "Like fish in aspic."by laurenmarkezich (see profile) 11/12/06

I want to finish this book. I really do. I like the characters and the story is interesting. The writing style, however, is dense and distracting. The endless literary and cultural references are too much.... (read more)

 
  "Funny and smart but the men in my book club weren't too crazy about it."by garcialeon (see profile) 09/23/06

I was intially very intimidated by this book because of the literary and cultural references. I thought it might be out of my reach but after the second chapter I realized that was far from... (read more)

Rate this book
MEMBER LOGIN
Remember me
BECOME A MEMBER it's free

Join the leading website for book clubs with over 35,000 clubs and 20,000 reading guides.

SEARCH OUR READING GUIDES Search
Search




FEATURED EVENTS
PAST AUTHOR CHATS
JOIN OUR MAILING LIST

Get free weekly updates on top club picks, book giveaways, author events and more
Please wait...