Picks and Pans Review: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

updated 08/07/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/07/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

By Marisha Pessl
CRITIC'S CHOICE
REVIEWED BY LIZA NELSON
MYSTERY

This blockbuster debut, over 500 pages chock-full of literary and pop cultural references and illustrations by Pessl herself, demands attention. The author uses a full arsenal of verbal tricks to tell the coming-of-age story of the brilliant if prematurely sardonic narrator Blue van Meer. Blue has spent a motherless childhood moving with her adored father, a political science professor, as he takes one semester-long position after another. Early in her senior year at a private high school in North Carolina, Blue is invited into an elite clique under the sway of a charismatic teacher. Behind Blue's sarcasm and verbiage is a lonely girl who thinks she's finally discovered friendship. But even before she finds her teacher hanging by an electrical cord in the woods, the novel has turned into a whodunit with overlays of conspiracy, murder and betrayal. As dazzling as they are, Pessl's literary pyrotechnics are just a sideshow; it's her irresistible heroine Blue who makes the novel's heart beat.

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