marginalia || Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl

A week or so ago, I picked up Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. I figured it was high-time, meaning, a lot of people I like like this book, the fact that I found a pristine hardcover for a ridiculously low price at a BookSale way back when must signal the Universe conspiring for me. Yeah. At least that’s how I rationalize reading this faaat–500 pages!–chunkster of a book. And then I had to stop reading the book because I’d left it at my boyfriend’s. Huh. I picked it up again some odd hours ago, and tried to read.

Here’s a comparison. Take a lookie at what I wrote back then, the day I began it:

Picked this up because I was getting panicky over the fact that it’s been a week since I finished a novel. Huff huff. It’s going well. Not completely engrossing at its first couple of pages, but the need to read is good motivation.

I love Gareth, Blue’s father. So flawed. So arrogant. So dorky-hot.

I am at Blue’s first day of senior year. I’m liking this book a lot, very much so. It’s got heart. It’s quirky, it’s charming. But I can’t help but feel that there’s something sinister about all this–Hannah Schneider, we are told early on, dies. I mean, a cultish group of select students (called the Bluebloods, huh), headed by a mysterious part-time teacher? That’s sooo The Secret History by Donna Tartt. In fact, it’s starting to look a lot like The Secret History by Donna Tartt. And I hated that novel, so full of itself, so Ooh I’m Smart and Mysterious and Hellenistic. Abandoned that fast.

Though I am definitely liking Special Topics more than Tartt’s novel. It’s been more appealing to me. It’s got a lot to do with our narrator Blue. She’s a precocious teenager, wise beyond her years, and armed with references that spanned genres. I don’t mind. She doesn’t come off as pretentious–in fact, I am so charmed by all this. I mean, the references and the similes can get overwhelming. But I’m holding on.

And then this is what I wrote when I picked it back up again:

CRAP, I’m just at page 101?!

But I trudged on. It got slow. And slower and slower. After reading 200-ish pages, I gritted my teeth and just skipped to the last hundred or so pages. It was getting tedious. So very tedious.

I still liked Blue’s voice–it’s the best part of this chunkster–but I was beginning to notice that the entertainment value of her precociousness and the references and gah those similes were tiring. The story was moving at such a slow pace that Blue’s voice–the wonderful storytelling–was just masking a weak narrative.

The fact that we learn of Hannah Schneider’s death early on. In the blurb, actually. But I was at p.170-ish when I started to feel cheated. I kept waiting for Hannah to die, but it just would not come, augh. And when a decoy death–well, an important death in the course of the story, not just in this reader’s expectations–came into the picture, I’d really thought, “Oh, yeah, bitch is going to die.”

But no. That just really got annoying. Also part of the reason why I skipped to the end.

I backtracked for parts where I needed some clarity. Most of the back stories for the revelations, though,–those that probably nestled in the middle 200 pages–I didn’t bother to hunt down. Huh. And those revelations were a doozy, most of them bewildering explanations for the most rational suspicions. Like who Hannah Schneider really was (I mean, of course she’s not who she said she was).

The conspiracy revealed was just so freaking ridiculous, and the characters had begun to act in ways that made me scratch my head. [A spoiler-alert I can’t help:] WTF Nightwatchmen? WTF Gareth? Where the hell did these resolutions come from? Augh.

I wanted to like this book, I really really did. But the story was ridiculous, how it played out, and how it was told–save for Blue’s voice. Blue, we can keep. The 200 pages of Stalling? Not so much. If I was a Rate-This-Book kind of reader, I’d rate it 4 for Blue’s character, and then a 3 for story. And audacious lack of editing. Tighten, Miss Pessl, tighten!

Meh March strikes again.

16 thoughts on “marginalia || Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl

    1. It cannot come soon enough, haha. I’m superstitious enough to think the Meh will disappear come April. It’s asking for Awesome, haha.

  1. I felt the same way about this book. I loved the premise and Blue had the potential to be a great character but an editor reigning it in a little would have helped me to love everything that much more.

    1. I really did feel that there were serious editing issues at work. The lack thereof. It could’ve been the best book out there, Blue was a great character. But the storytelling was just all over the place.

  2. I was given this book as a present because Blue apparently reminded the person of me, hehe.

    I had a hard time getting through it as well; I was expecting it to be a mystery and it spun out into a psychodrama… Sigh.

    1. I think a lot of us initially identified with Blue. And then, well, yeah–it got Meh. Which is really too bad, because I really did love Blue.

  3. Similar experience – started off really well then I just kept counting the pages to see when it would be over. Seemed like the author was going for a Donna Tartt homage, which could never turn out well.

    1. Donna Tartt from the perspective of a rather charming character could’ve worked. Could’ve. Then again, I abandoned The Secret History about fifty pages in.

  4. I wanted to read this after your comment on my blog. Interesting that you found it hard to get into and started counting pages, because I read the whole thing in a couple of days–I couldn’t get enough of it. Then the ending bothered me partly for personal reasons and partly because I’d figured it out and wasn’t surprised.

    1. My love for Blue would’ve allowed me to read it straight through — but that pause in between, a logistical pause, allowed me to see weaknesses in the narrative. I just got really impatient with it all. And, man, that ENDING. I need someone with which I can rant about that ending. Gah. Ahem. Sorry, haha.

  5. I liked this book. Until I reached the final chapters…I’m not really sure what happened to the story. I felt an overwhelming sense of dissatisfaction and guilt for having been so forgiving about the book’s length and wordiness.

    1. I know exactly what you mean. Blue was wonderful, and I liked how she narrated her story. But Pessl as an author and storyteller wasn’t quite as satisfying. And yes, considering the chunkiness of this book, I demand satisfaction, haha.

  6. I remember reading this book on vacation and loving it so frakking much (despite the ending, yes) and telling everyone about it, only to find out that I was alone in the liking! Hahaha.


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