Thursday, September 14, 2006

Well-publicized first novel is worth all the attention


She cracked the Big Apple. Marisha Pessl, sometime actress and now one hot author, garnered a front cover review (very favorable) in a recent issue of the New York Times Book Review.

She's going to get another review here (very, very favorable) for writing Blue van Meer into the hearts of readers. Blue is the excruciatingly well-read 16-year-old heroine of "Special Topics in Calamity Physics" ($25.95 from Viking), who tells her story as if it's a Western civics course, with chapter headings such as "The House of the Seven Gables" and "Things Fall Apart." But this is no dry-as-dust recitation. It's Blue's life, seen through books and films and her Dad's Harvard-trained erudition.

"Dad" is Gareth van Meer, widower, a devilishly handsome cynic who attracts "June Bugs" (middle-aged women with thoughts of reform) and who takes all kinds of professor jobs at third-rate institutions throughout the South, traveling, traveling, all the while training Blue to recognize the causes of revolutions, to recite pi to umpty-ump places, and to memorize the works of Keats. Eventually, for Blue's senior year of high school, the two settle in Stockton, N.C., so Blue can attend St. Gallway School.

"The catalogue featured the proverbial wound-up rhetoric drenched in adjectives, sunny photos filled with bushy autumn trees, teachers with the kind faces of mice and kids grinning as they strolled down the sidewalk holding big textbooks in their arms like roses. In the distance, looking on (and apparently bored stiff) sat a crowd of glum plum mountains, a sky in wistful blue. ... A diminutive stone chapel did its best to hide from the massive Tudor buildings slouched all over the lawns, structures christened with names like Hanover Hall, Elton House, Barrow and Vauxhall, each sporting a facade that brought to mind early U.S. presidents: gray-topped, heavy brow, wooden teeth, mulish bearing."

Into this world steps Blue, and the first part of her long book revels in description and being befriended by part-time art teacher Hannah Schneider, mid-40s, thin, elegant and gorgeous, a mystery. She has surrounded herself with a group of student misfits, Charles, Nigel, Milton, Leulah and Jade. Hannah insists that Blue join the party. It's a difficult fit, but Blue warms to Hannah, her talk of life and art, and pushes away the dull normalcy of one Zach Soderberg -- Blue's group calls him "the coupon" ("he really was all bar code, all Great Savings, all $5-Off with Proof of Purchase") -- to embrace instead a quirkier and more exciting world.

Until, on a camping trip in the Great Smoky Mountains with the group, Hannah is found, hanged. "She hung three feet above the ground by an orange electrical extension cord. Her eyes looked like acorns, or dull pennies or two black buttons off an overcoat kids might stick into the face of a snowman and they saw nothing. Or else that was the problem, they'd seen everything."

It's suicide, of course. Isn't it? Hannah had wanted to tell Blue a secret, and now this. "Such things as anguish, woe, affliction, guilt, feelings of awfulness and utter wretchedness, the bread and butter of Days of Yore and Russians, sadly have very little staying power in these lickety-split Modern Times." But in "Calamity Physics" they make their return. In Hannah's True Life Story lies Blue's anguish -- and hope.

Read the book, read it carefully, then turn around and read it again.

There's a final exam at the end.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

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