At first, Marisha Pessl's debut novel, Special Topics In Calamity Physics, comes off like juvenile fiction with epic pretensions, like a Judy Blume book crossed with Dave Eggers, or a John Hughes movie blessed with the wry observational qualities of Whit Stillman. Pessl's heroine, Blue van Meer, is the genius daughter of prickly political scientist Gareth van Meer, who hops from university to university on semester-long visiting-professor contracts. For Blue's senior year—her prelude to Harvard—Gareth lets her stay in one high school from fall to spring. There, she meets charismatic Intro To Film teacher Hannah Schneider and a clique of so-popular-that-nobody-likes-them students. Collectively, they take Blue under their wing, teaching her about hedonism, snobbery, and other forms of adolescent stupidity.
Ordinarily, it wouldn't take 500 pages to tell a story like this, but Pessl adds illustrations, made-up literary citations, and a final exam. She also makes it clear from the first chapter—the fourth paragraph, to be exact—that this flip coming-of-age tale is building to the moment when Blue finds Hannah dead, strangled by an electrical cord. Special Topics In Calamity Physics is as much a murder mystery as a witty teen romp, and Pessl is so sly about the mystery part of the novel that she drops clues even Blue never finds. She keeps readers on their toes right through to that final exam, which sneaks in some new information about what happened and why, as well as what may be next for Blue.
Pessl goes a little over the top with her fake literary references, and she sometimes stalls the narrative too long in order to follow dead ends in Blue's love life, or to share Gareth's professional cynicism. But she knows her way around a simile—like "she'd resolved to shake me off like a hit funnybone"—and she knows how to evoke the wrenching feeling of being alternately let into and shut out of a social circle. Special Topics In Calamity Physics wears its cleverness too openly, but it's about clever people, and the heart-hardening disillusionment that occurs when our heroes reveal themselves as oblique and ordinary. The mystery Blue is trying to solve isn't really who killed Hannah, but something more profound: how smug self-righteousness replaced real courage in modern American culture.