Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

I recently finished Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. This book was a highly unusual choice for me, most notably in that it’s a work of fiction published within the last 10 years. 2006, specifically. This stands in contrast to my regular fiction fodder, which is more likely to be published in 1906 than 2006.

That being said, I really, really enjoyed this book. It constantly surprised me, and I was also frequently surprised by how much I found myself genuinely excited to pick it up and read it further. And it didn’t even have any science fiction in it – that’s my usual modern fiction choice. How bizarre!

special topics in calamity physics by marisha pessl

The Book

Basically, Calamity Physics is about a high school senior named Blue, who has had every literary reference you can imagine (and some creative ones that were made up) drilled into her by her scholarly father for her entire life. Her dad, Gareth, is a professor who never manages to stay at the same college for more than a semester, and the two travel as a close-knit team across the nation, Blue not making any real connections, while Gareth is promiscuous but quick to drop anyone who gets too close. The missing mother figure here died in an accidental? car crash when Blue was 5.

However, for Blue’s senior year, the two-part family stays in one town so Blue can graduate and get to Harvard as destiny mandates. But in that year, Blue meets a teacher who is so naturally compelling and magnetic that Blue’s whole life is thrown off-kilter – and then, when the teacher commits suicide (or is killed?), things get real.

special topics butterfly cover

The Book Was Great

This book did a number on me in terms of the subtle clues it placed throughout the whole story. A mention of a hair color here, a bit of deja vu there, and you didn’t even realize you were reading a mystery until shit hits the fan halfway through. And then when it all comes together at the end, it’s the equivalent of getting hit in the gut, and then getting hit again when Pessl pulls it off flawlessly.

For such a great read all the way through, I’m surprised by how great the ending was. You know how it is, when you read a really great book, you often expect the ending to be only so-so, just because maintaining that level of quality the whole way through is hard. Not so in this case – it kept getting better and better, and then the ending kicked it up a notch and got exponentially better yet. Wow.

marisha pessl author

Calamity Physics was Pessl’s first novel, and from what I can ascertain, she got a pretty big advance for it – but after reading it, I can easily see why. I’m sad that a movie deal never happened (it almost did) but it would’ve been hard to pull off anyway, since part of the book’s charm is the immense amount of literary references that Blue makes as footnotes. Pessl later authored a book called Night Film, which I’m going to make a point to check out soon.


OK, I admit, I picked this book up (from the free shelf at the Common Cup coffee shop, years ago) because it had “Physics” in the title and I was in a hurry and didn’t realize it was a fiction book until a month later when I looked at it. But I’m glad I was too lazy to check, because this book is definitely high on my list. If you get a chance, pick up Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl – you’ll be impressed too.