Thursday, November 29, 2007

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

I just finished this ambitious debut novel, which goes to show how behind I am in literary pursuits--it was published last year. It's been sitting on my nightstand for a while because, at over 500 pages, the book was a bit daunting. Well. I think it's clearly a love-it-or-hate-it book (the average 3 1/2 star rating on librarything would seem to corroborate this assumption) and I LOVED it. Comparisons with Safran Foer and Zadie Smith abound. The Zadie Smith part I agree with, but I (ahem) didn't really care for Safran Foer much, though I can see a passing resemblance. Like Zadie Smith and my beloved Kate Atkinson, Pessl pulls together disparate elements adeptly to keep control of her complicated plot. Part coming-of-age tale, part high school realism, part mystery, part History of Western Thought, this novel is packed with more similes, metaphors, and literary references (some real, others invented) than any high school English class. Yet this doesn't detract from astute characterization and masterful plotting. Pessl is an incredibly gifted writer and Blue is so well-drawn that it's easy to forgot this is not a real autobiography of a real girl. Blue's descriptions, wry asides, and painstaking references somehow make her more likeable instead of insufferably show-offy and pedantic. She shimmers on the page, on every page, a luminous force-to-be-reckoned with. (See, all that description and simile is contagious.)

The other characters (even Blue's dad) are drawn with less depth, because they're shown only through Blue's eyes, but they are still fascinating. They propel the labyrinthine plot through increasing twists and turns, many wildly improbable, but I never stopped to ask, "Are you kidding me?" as another twist revealed itself. I think the pacing can be credited here. As some have complained, the first 300 pages move slowly, almost laboriously, and the last 200 really fly, snagging you as they pass, dragging you along through the satisfying conclusion and, better yet, a beautiful ending. I didn't mind the pacing of the first 300. Rather, I thought those pages set the reader up for the conclusion by gently unfolding events, coincidences, character oddities, in a leisurely fashion to make him/her invested in the outcome. A more perfunctory set-up would have meant a less satisfying pay-off, in my opinion.

Okay, I've gone on long enough. I hope Marisha Pessl is hard at work on her next novel, because I can't wait. I'll pass the time by re-reading this one.

1 comment:

Holly said...

Wow! What a great review Allison. But I have a feeling I'd probably be in the hate-it group on this one. And 500 pages is pretty daunting to me too. But who knows, maybe I'll give it a try someday. :-)