Marisha Pessl

"Special Topics in Calamity Physics"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JAN 23, 2007)

"[Hannah] was dark haired, thin as a riding crop.  Dressed in funeral attire, a black suit with black 1980s stilettos (more dagger than shoe), she looked incongruous… It was obvious, however, in the way she examined the back of the box of frozen peas, that she liked being incongruous, the lone Bombshell slinking into a Norman Rockwell, the ostrich amongst buffalo."


When Blue van Meer's father, a peripatetic college professor, agrees to let her spend her entire senior year at the same school, instead of moving each semester while he accepts visiting professorships all over the country, she quickly settles in at Stockton, NC.  Enrolling at St. Gallway School, where she is expected to become the valedictorian, Blue finds herself inexplicably becoming part of "the Bluebloods," a group of five other students, all of whom have various family problems.  This group moves in the orbit of Hannah Schneider, a charismatic film teacher, who invites the group to her home each Sunday and serves as a sounding board for whatever problems they want to discuss. 

Read ExcerptNot really part of the group, Blue tries to fit in, often doing what Jade Vine wants to do, and eventually experimenting with alcohol, drugs, and sneaking into places where none of them have been invited.  When a death occurs at a party at Hannah Schneider's house, Blue and the group decide to investigate.  Since the story is a flashback from the opening chapter, the reader knows from the outset that Blue will eventually discover Hannah Schneider hanging, an electrical cord around her neck.

Using the name of a famous piece of world literature as the title of each chapter, author Marisha Pessl shows absurd parallels between the action of the novel and that of the famous literature.  She packs her long novel with sensational plot elements—murder, lies, secret identities, betrayals, and dramatic parent/child issues—keeping the reader involved, even as her style sometimes alienates. 

With a penchant for over-writing, Pessl incorporates more unique imagery into one chapter than most writers do in an entire book, often turning nouns into verbs, and vice versa—"hair ivying over the armrest," "lettuce fireworked into the air"—and creating unique similes and metaphors—"the root canal hallway,"  "sleep as likely as  phoenix eggs,"  and a woman who is "a walking wedge of Camembert." 

Pessl is immensely talented, with the ability to handle complex plots, multiple characters, and important themes (who we are, how we become who we are, and how much we can control who we are), but she is like an explosion, her energy going off in all directions, her power not under control.  As she satirizes people, their activities, and their self-consciousness, she involves the reader in their actions, thereby creating confusion about whether the novel is serious or not. 

This debut novel is astonishing, chock full of fascinating plot and style elements. Pessl leaves the reader hoping for her future success with maybe just a little more effective editing and control.
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Read a chapter excerpt from Special Topics in Calamity Physics at

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About the Author:

Marisha PesslMarisha Pessl was born near Detroit, where her father, Klaus, from an Austrian Family, worked as an engineer for General Motors. Her mother is an American who grew up in Brazil and Venezuela. Her parents divorced when she was 3. She and her sister moved to Asheville, North Carolina with their mother and visited their father in Austria once or twice a year.

Marisha attended Northwestern University for two years but transferred to Barnard in 1998 so that she could live in New York City. She majored in English Literature and after graduation she worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers and started working on "Calamity Physics," writing at night. She moved to London with Nic Caiano in 2001 and began to write full time. They married in 2003. She showed the manuscript to no one while working on it, finished it in 2004, and contacted the agent for Jonathan Franzen, since she admires him as a writer. The manuscript was sold at auction for a nice six figures.

Marisha and her husband live in New York City. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014