Thursday, February 21, 2008

Clever Girl

Once again a first novel – this time it's Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. The story is told by Blue Van Meer, the precociously erudite teenage daughter of an itinerant genius academic. Her father crisscrosses the country teaching one semester poli sci courses at a variety of backwater colleges and educating his daughter on everything from Wordsworth to Nabokov to Karl Marx as they drive from one remote town to the next. And educated she is. The book is littered with literary and film citations, both real (”Dad chose to ignore these signs of impending doom (see Lives of the Caesars, Suetonius, 121 A.D.)”) and hilariously imaginary (“Milton, sturdy and grim, with a big, cushiony body like someone's favorite reading chair in need of reupholstering (see “American Black Bear”, Meat-Eating Land Animals, Richards, 1982)”. She never met a simile she didn't like (“Jade had a very severe way of looking at you that made you feel as if she was a 1780 sugarcane plantation owner and you, the branded slave on the Antiguan auction block who hadn't seen your mother and father in a year and probably never would again”). She even provides her own schoolgirlish illustrations as she describes her senior year in Stockton, North Carolina, the latest town in her father's itinerary. But just when I was losing patience with this tale of high school angst by an overeducated showoff, the story took a sharp left turn and became a whodunit that kept me flipping back to re-read chapters where I'd missed clues. Pessl doesn't blindside you with the death itself; it is initially described in the first chapter of the book. But her hints are dropped skillfully, and once the mystery shifts gears, it barrels along to its odd but appropriate final chapter. I'd recommend it as a good book to take on a long plane ride or a trip to the beach.

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