Clever Girl with a Mystery Dad Turns into a Grieving Sleuth

In her senior year at St. Gallway High School, Blue van Meer fulfills the dreams of all bookish, lonely girls: to get in with the in-crowd, score a hot prom date, land an acceptance from Harvard, wind up as valedictorian and solve the death by hanging of a beloved teacher. Oh, yes–she also uncovers her father’s secret identity. As you can perhaps imagine, a shift into warp drive separates the first two-thirds of Marisha Pessl’s snappy debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, from its bone-rattling conclusion.

Motherless from the age of 5, Blue is brought up by her father, Gareth van Meer, a political-science professor who intentionally stalls his career with single-semester teaching gigs at obscure colleges, the better to concentrate on his writing (e.g., “Steel-toe Stilettos: The Designer Fashions of American Foreign Aid”) and on the education of his only child. Gareth’s parenting is a cross between Auntie Mame and John Stuart Mill’s father. While other kids spend vacation cross-country drives shouting “Padiddle!” at cars with one burned-out headlamp, Blue joins her paternal unit in Sonnet-a-thons or The Van Meer Radio Theater Hour, featuring plays likely to appear on A.P. exams. “Dad could meticulously divide a state end to end,” she explains, “not into equal driving shifts but into rigid half-hour segments of Vocabulary Flash Cards (words every genius should know), Author Analogies (‘the analogy is The Citadel of thought: the toughest way to condition unruly relationships’), Essay Recitation (followed by a twenty-minute question-and-answer period), [and] War of the Words (Coleridge/Wordsworth face-offs).”

Good-looking in the rumpled way of fathers in novels–“he resembled an aged silent movie star”–Gareth attracts a colorful stream of determined women over 35. Blue (who was named after a butterfly, the Cassius Blue, her mother’s easiest meadow catch) calls these “June Bugs.” Each June Bug believes she’ll be the one to domesticate Gareth, but he gallantly claims Blue’s mother, who died in a car accident, as his one and only love. He ducks out of every lasso before it tightens, falling back on embarrassment, regret and caller ID.

From the beginning of the novel, we know that something terrible has happened, possibly a result of a conspiracy among gifted students of an elite school, and that Blue is now compelled to write about it. In this and other ways, Ms. Pessl’s debut recalls Donna Tartt’s Secret History (1992). (Ms. Pessl, like Ms. Tartt when she published her first novel, is 28 and photogenic.) But the tone is different.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a wordy, funny book, crowded with closely observed details and jokey literary references that veer into the kind of brainy silliness you could imagine from postgraduates huffing helium. Blue’s sexual education, for example, consists of a stack of books her father handed her when she was 12, including “C. Allen’s Shame Culture and the Shadow World [1993], Somewhere Between Puritans and Brazil: How to Have a Healthy Sexuality [Mier, 1990], also Paul D. Russell’s terrifying What You Don’t Know About White Slavery [1996].”

Blue is no stranger to new schools or cliques or infatuation with teachers. Her knowing quality, which–as it usually does–masks a lamb-like innocence about others, carries her through the first weeks at St. Gallway. She comments drolly on her dangerous new friends, known around school as the Bluebloods, and recognizes, from her extensive reading every stage of their evolving relationship–from their resentful inclusion of her (at the instigation of their mentor, the film-studies teacher, Hannah Schneider) to their alcoholic bonding to her shock and pain when they close ranks again near the end of the novel. Like a lot of literary bloggers, she uses capital letters to signal her ironic distance from events: “[T]hen I was in her killer whale of a Mercedes, all Disbelief, Awkwardness and Outright Panic as I compulsively glanced at the speedometer trembling toward 80 mph.”

Ms. Pessl, too, seems eager to assure us that she knows there’s nothing new about private-school thrillers or romans à clef featuring motherless girls watchful of their fathers’ love life. The difficulty with this kind of self-conscious satire is that the reader is held at a remove, enjoying the author’s performance but not risking belief. Most of the ominous action is undercut with giddy humor. While Blue and her friends spy from a parked car on Hannah Schneider, for instance, one of the girls is “stuffing her mouth with licorice now, chewing goatishly.” This works beautifully until the crucial twist, about 150 pages from the end of the book, when we’re expected to follow Blue through a mystery plot involving not only the dead film-studies teacher–who seems to have killed herself during a camping trip with Blue and her friends–but clandestine romance, double identities, underground revolutionaries and political assassinations. Suddenly, Blue knows nothing.

However exhilarating the story is after Hannah Schneider’s death, it’s hard to empathize with Blue as a grieving amateur sleuth, having the spent the novel smirking alongside her. Marisha Pessl’s special talent is for arresting similes (when getting drunk for the first time, Blue “found it impossible to focus on the conversation; it was like that cruel little blurry line at the bottom of an eye chart”) and fresh, merciless physical descriptions. These keep us hooked when the Implausible Plot Shifts threaten to shake us loose.

Regina Marler is the editor of Queer Beats: How the Beats Turned America On to Sex (Cleis Press) and a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times Book Review and The Advocate. Clever Girl with a Mystery Dad  Turns into a Grieving Sleuth