I loved this book.
I bought it after reading Night Film and the subsequent reviews about that. Lots of them mentioned Pessl’s debut in glowing terms and, as I’d loved NF, I figured this would be a winner too.
It is, but in such a different way to Night Film that I don’t think you would know that both books had been penned by the same author. You know, if you didn’t know.
That’s not a bad thing though, much like being a good actor, I think it shows a tremendous range to be able to knock up more than one very strong novel with completely different voices.
Special Topics tells the story of Blue from her own perspective, after she has gone through ‘an ordeal’. This ordeal – we learn from the cover and also in the first chapter – is the death of somebody close to her. Blue finds her teacher, Hannah Schneider dead, hanging from a length of electrical cord.
Blue is the only child of arrogant academic, Gareth van Meer. Her mother was killed in a car accident when she was much younger. She is film and literature obsessed and the book is peppered with footnotes and references to classic novels, textbooks and cinema (some are fake).
She has been moved around the country, from state to state, school to school without much thought on her father’s part. But when they arrive in Stockton, North Carolina, Gareth agrees that they can settle for a semester or two, before Blue goes off to college at Harvard.
As they get comfortable in their new town, Blue attends St Gallway and falls in with the ‘Bluebloods’. This is manufactured by the school’s enigmatic Film teacher, Hannah Schneider, who is the object of much fascination for Blue; an intrigue that appears to be mutual.
The Bluebloods are a mysterious bunch who at first don’t warm to Blue,but eventually welcome her into the fold, giving her the moniker ‘Retch’. Charged up on mystery, the gang, minus Charles – who is alleged to have had a short lived affair with Hannah – begin to piece together a background for her.
Since she expertly dodges any and all questions about her own life at their ‘secret’Sunday dinners at her house, none of them feel they really know her at all.
The question in this Whodunnit? is: was Hannah’s death suicide as the local cops have ruled it or did something more sinister transpire on the night Blue found her? And why are the Bluebloods so angry with Blue after the event?
Again, I have to say I loved Special Topics. It’s a read that doesn’t come easy though,where Night Film was devoured in a matter of days, STICP is a pace yourself read. All the ‘literary’ references take a bit of working through, and some of the anecdotes about Blue’s father come off as a little pompous. Which works, it seems he is exactly that.
I love all mention of the ‘June Bugs’ though, the nickname given by the van Meers to the poor desperate women who find themselves falling for Gareth,a man who dates a lot but believes in only one true love. In his case; already been and gone.
Incidentally, I watched a film recently (Stuck in Love) in which a character (played by Greg Kinnear) reminded me of Gareth van Meer. So if ever they do make this into a film, he’d be my Gareth. Not so sure about Blue: an unknown perhaps?
Read this book, it’s really well written. Yes, maybe it’s a little pretentious at times but since it’s main protagonist is a young women going through her rites of passage before our very eyes, madly in love with fellow Blueblood, the mighty Milton and trying to come to terms with who she is, it can be forgiven.
Blue is largely likable, as are her contemporaries on an individual level and I dare you not to be dying to find out what happens at the end. Will all your questions be answered as you turn to the last page? Will you ever find out what happened to tragic Hannah?
That’s for you to discover!
- Special Topics in Calamity Physics
- Publisher: Penguin (3 May 2007)
- ISBN-10: 0141024321
- ISBN-13: 978-0141024325
- Bought paperback (secondhand)
Happy reading, fellow Bookworms!