Initially I had trouble focusing on the book. I took any excuse to stop reading it. Then it was like a switch was flipped and suddenly I couldn't put the book down. It was still wordy at times, but the wordiness seemed to serve the story or serve the characters and not be an exercise in meeting some page length minimum. Blue continues to cite reference after reference, from encyclopedias to her Dad's lecture notes, but these are less clawing, more pertinent to the story. From the sheer volume you know Blue has essentially a photographic memory, able to quote every book she's come across, but now you learn more from the actual citations.
The book is a coming of age first and foremost with a murder mystery/conspiracy theory thrown in. After Part One, the book found its balance between these two genres, with the language, with Blue's voice. The story goes in plenty of directions but it is to the benefit of the story instead of sounding like the author has ADD and was unable to decide what to do next. Everything fits together and makes you want to go back and reread parts of it as the story progresses, not because of confusion but because there is a lot to take in and I wanted to see how pages I'd already read change with the new information garnered.
There is humor, especially in Blue's father's various bon mots, lectures, discussions, anytime he opens his mouth. He's pretentious and snobby but he's amusing and because of that he is a character you want to watch. At one point he is describing the ambiguous ending of a movie
"L'Avventura," Dad said, "has the sort of ellipsis ending most American audiences would rather undergo a root canal than be left with, not only because they loathe anything left to the imagination - we're talking about a country that invented spandex - but also because they are confident, self-assured nation...the idea that none of us can truly know anything at all - not the lives of our friends or family, not even ourselves - is a thought they'd rather be shot in the arm with their own semi-automatic rifle than face head on." (411)The book has it's own ambiguous ending though perhaps Pessel couldn't leave it totally uncertain (she is American) and the book ends with a Final Exam of True/False, Multiple Choice and Essay question that shed a little more light on the narrative.
This is Pessl's first novel and I'm intrigued enough to check out what else she comes up with. Special Topics may also be made into a movie at some point, which I'd be interested in checking out. Mirimax optioned the screen rights at some point in '07 (according to Variety) but who knows when, if ever, it will make it to the screen.
Title quote from page 261
Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Marisha Pessl. Viking Press, New York. 2006.