P is for Pessl


 For P I read Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I’m disappointed in myself for this one, because I started reading it early and it still took me two weeks to read. Never fear, dear readers, I’ll catch up with the Challenge. Sometimes, though, life gets in the way, and this month has been an exceptionally busy one.
Despite this, I read for about the time I would normally read for – probably longer, as I had a couple of train journeys as well. It’s not that long, but it’s quite densely written and you can’t afford to skim sentences, as you’ll find yourself wandering around in the text, lost amongst the characters’ conversation.
Marisha Pessl (thank you, wikipedia)  was born in the late 1970s, and after her parents split the family moved to North Carolina. Apparently she had an intellectually stimulating upbringing, with her mother reading aloud to her children before bed. This is perhaps the inspiration for Special Topics in Calamity Physics, where Blue van Meer is an intellectually stimulated teenager who moves around America with her professor father. Write about what you know, I guess.
The writing, although awkward in places, does it’s best to engage the reader with a fairly unwieldy plotline. Pessl clearly loves language, and playing with sentences. She frequently anthropomorphises inanimate objects, pets, even emotions, which is usually amusing, although it got wearing after a little while. The other aspect I found interesting was her ability to make the reader react – she describes facial expressions so well that I found myself copying the character’s, using her description.
Blue is an extremely intelligent sixteen year old girl, brought up by her father after the apparent suicide of her mother, when she was very young. Her thoughts, and indeed, the book’s prose, are littered with pop culture and literary references from all eras and areas – high and low brow. It reminded me a little of Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, that non fiction Philosophy textbook masquerading as an endearing (though slightly creepy) relationship story. It was quite fun to recognise references, although usually Blue explained them anyway, so don’t be daunted by this. The made up references were more confusing – writings by van Meer featured heavily, along with websites that I am more than half-tempted to look up, just to see what’s there. The other bonus with having books referenced is that you collect other books on your to read list.  The snag is when there are books you want to read which aren’t real. I just spend ten minutes looking for the Charles Manson biography “Blackbird singing in the dead of night”, only to find that it’s fabricated. I suppose that’s the mark of a good writer, or one of them, at least.
The plot revolves around Blue’s senior year at a new high school, where she meets film teacher Hannah Schneider and an elite group of seniors – the Bluebloods. They’ve all been picked by Hannah to socialise with her in a faux study group. It reminded me of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History – a group of teenagers construct a secret society with dire consequences. Except, there weren’t, really. Although you find out at the beginning of the book that Hannah Schneider commits suicide, it’s not really until the end hundred and fifty pages that the story comes out about it. I think the book suffers from a stilted pace, as if Pessl didn’t employ an editor, but wrote everything she wanted to write before realising that nothing much had happened for three hundred pages and she needed to wrap it up.  It also reminded me of Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things,  where Something Bad is going to happen for three hundred pages, and when it finally does, I’d lost interest in the Terrible Thing.
I was a bit bewildered by the third act, to be honest. I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but there are a number of plot twists in the last hundred pages which left me reeling with information. Other events in the story click into place as being finally relevant, but by that time I’d either forgotten where they’d been mentioned or they felt shoehorned in at the last minute. In this way, it’s a good book to re-read, and I think it would be great for a book club, as there are so many different aspects that a good discussion would be interesting.
In the same way that Blue’s life echoes Pessl’s, the book imitates itself. The film L’Aventura features heavily, which, we are told, revolves around a missing woman who is never found. A quick imdb search reveals that this too, is a fabrication of Pessl’s. However, although Hannah does not disappear, the book is not wrapped up and there is no pertinent ending. Some people may find this frustrating, which is understandable, but I enjoyed the confidence inherent in finishing a book without closure. The book also begins with Blue introducing herself (although you don’t know her name until a fair amount of pages in) and explaining that she’s writing a journal for her grandkids. This format does not continue all the way through, but there are some nice touches, such as the ‘hand-drawn’ visual aids which are sprinkled through the chapters.
I’d be interested in reading this book again as I’m sure there are loads of things  I missed. It’s touted as the next The Time Traveler’s Wife, and my copy even has a quote from Niffenegger about how she couldn’t put it down. Sadly, I don’t think it’s going to enjoy that level of popularity, but it’s still worth reading if you fancy something a little more challenging and thought-provoking. 

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