Special Topics in Calamity Physics
By Marisha Pessl
Published by Viking Adult  
August 2006; 067003777X; 528 pages

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Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl Dad picked up women the way certain wool pants can't help but pick up lint. For years I had a nickname for them, though I feel a little guilty using it now: June Bugs (see "Figeater Beetle," Ordinary Insects, Vol. 24).

There was Mona Letrovski, the actress from Chicago with wide-set eyes and dark hair on her arms who liked to shout, "Gareth, you're a fool," with her back to him, Dad's cue to run over to her, turn her around and see the Look of Bitter Longing on her face. Only Dad never turned her around to see the Bitter Longing. Instead, he stared at her back as if it was an abstract painting. Then he went into the kitchen for a glass of bourbon. There was Connie Madison Parker, whose perfume hung in the air like a battered piñata. There was Zula Pierce of Okush, New Mexico, a black woman who was taller than he was, so whenever Dad kissed her she had to bend down as if peeking through a peephole to see who was ringing her bell. She started out calling me, "Blue, honey," which, like her relationship with Dad, slowly began to erode, becoming "Bluehoney" and then "Blueoney," ultimately ending with "Baloney." ("Baloney had it in for me from the very beginning!" she screamed.)

Dad's romances could last anywhere between a platypus egg incubation (19–21 days) and a squirrel pregnancy (24–45 days). I admit sometimes I hated them, especially the ones teeming with Ladies' Tips, How-tos and Ways to Improve, the ones like Connie Madison Parker, who muscled her way into my bathroom and chastised me for hiding my merchandise (see "Molluscs," Encyclopedia of Living Things, 4th ed.).

 

Connie Madison Parker, age 36, on Merchandise: "You got to put your goods on display, babe. Otherwise, not only will the boys ignore you but—an' trust me on this, my sister's flat as you—we're talkin' the Great Plains of East Texas—no landmarks—one day you'll look down and have no wares at all. What'll you do then?"

Sometimes June Bugs weren't too terrible. Some of the sweeter, more docile ones like poor, droopy-eyed Tally Meyerson, I actually felt sorry for, because even though Dad made no attempt to hide the fact they were as temporary as Scotch tape, most were blind to his indifference (see "Basset Hound," Dictionary of Dogs, Vol. 1).

Perhaps the June Bug understood Dad had felt that way about all the others, but armed with three decades' worth of Ladies Home Journal editorials, an expertise in such publications as Getting Him to the Altar (Trask, 1990) and The Chill Factor: How Not to Give a Damn (and Leave Him Wanting More) (Mars, 2000) as well as her own personal history of soured relationships, most of them believed (with the sort of unyielding insistence associated with religious fanatics) that, when under the spell of her burnt-sugar aura, Dad wouldn't feel that way about her. Within a few fun-filled dates, Dad would learn how intoxicating she was in the kitchen, what an Old Sport she was in the bedroom, how enjoyable during carpools. And so it always came as a complete surprise when Dad turned out the lights, swatted her ruthlessly off his screen, and subsequently drenched his entire porch in Raid Pest Control.

Dad and I were like the trade winds, blowing through town, bringing dry weather wherever we went.

Sometimes the June Bugs tried to stop us, foolishly believing they could reroute a Global Wind and permanently impact the world's weather system. Two days before we were scheduled to move to Harpsberg, Connecticut, Jessie Rose Rubiman of Newton, Texas, heiress to the Rubiman Carpeting franchise, announced to Dad she was pregnant with his child. She tearfully demanded she move with us to Harpsberg or Dad would have to pay a One-time Initiation Fee of $100,000 with an ongoing direct debit of $10,000 per month for the next eighteen years. Dad didn't panic. When it came to such matters, he prided himself with having the air of a maître d' in a restaurant with an exorbitant wine list, preordered soufflé, and roving cheese cart. He calmly asked for confirmation with blood.

As it turned out, Jessie wasn't pregnant. She had an exotic strain of stomach flu, which she'd eagerly confused with morning sickness. While we prepared for Harpsberg, now a week behind schedule, Jessie performed sad, sobbing monologues into our answering machine. The day we left, Dad found an envelope on the porch in front of the front door. He tried to hide it from me. "Our last utilities bill," he said, because he'd rather die than show me the "hormonal ravings of a madwoman," which he himself had inspired. Six hours later, however, somewhere in Missouri, I stole the letter from the glove compartment when he stopped at a gas station to buy Tums.

Dad found love letters from a June Bug as monumental as an extraction of aluminum, but for me it was like coming across a vein of gold in quartz. Nowhere in the world was there a nugget of emotion more absolute.

I still have my collection, which tallies seventeen. I include below an excerpt from Jessie's four-page Ode to Gareth:

You mean the very world to me and I'd go to the ends of the earth for you if you asked me. You didn't ask me though and I will accept that as a friend. I will miss you. I'm sorry about that baby thing. I hope we keep in touch and that you will consider me a good friend in the future who you can relie on in thickness and thin. In lou of yesterday's phone call I am sorry I called you a pig. Gareth all I ask is to remember me not as I have been over the past couple days but as that happy woman you met in the parking lot of K-Mart.

Peace be to you forever more.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl.

Copyright 2006

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Synopsis

As teenager Blue van Meer tells her story we are hurled into a dizzying world of murder and butterflies, womanizing and wandering, American McCulture, The Western Canon, political radicalism and juvenile crushisms.  Structured around a syllabus for a Great Works of Literature class (with hand-drawn Visual Aids), Blue's wickedly funny yet poignant tale reveals how the imagination finds meaning in the most bewildering times, the ways people of all ages strive for connection, and how the darkest of secrets can set us free.

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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.

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