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Literature / Special Topics In Calamity Physics

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"Sometimes it takes more courage not to let yourself see. Sometimes knowledge is damaging - not enlightenment but enleadenment."

The debut novel of Marisha Pessl.

After moving across America for years with her charismatic and intensely educated father as the only constant in her life, Blue van Meer finally gets to spend a solid year in a single town to finish high school. A mysterious teacher, Hannah Schneider, bumps into her and her father while they're shopping before school starts. She strikes up a conversation with them, and soon after invites Blue into the Bluebloods, a group of assorted teens she invites to dinner every weekend. Hannah and her Bluebloods all seem to be harboring some dark secrets. Soon Blue is drawn into intrigues and mysteries that lead her to re-evaluate her father and herself.

The book's two draws are its deceptively intricate plot and its unique writing style. Blue is compulsively literate, with a nearly perfect memory for the many books she's read and all the trivia her father has drilled her in. She frequently appends citations to her own descriptions (such as referencing an encyclopedia article on a hyena after describing someone's laugh), and the prose is generally witty and refreshing, with cliches ripped out by the roots and fresh metaphors seeded in their place (like that, except a lot better).


This book provides examples of:

  • Arc Words: "The Nightwatchmen."
  • Brick Joke: Several. For instance, early on, Blue mentions that she thinks it would be romantic if someone whispered pi to 65 decimals places into her ear. At the end of the book, one of the multiple choice answers includes "Zach is currently trying to memorize pi to 65 places".
  • Butterfly of Death and Rebirth: Blue's deceased mother collects them.
  • Coming of Age Story
  • Cool Teacher: Hannah is this, overlapping with Eccentric Mentor.
  • Does Not Like Shoes/Barefoot Loon: Hannah is eccentric, and one of her pecularities is a penchant for going barefoot.
  • Eccentric Mentor: Hannah Schneider is an eccentric teacher who has a profound impact on the Bluebloods' lives.
  • Embarrassing Tattoo: Milton has one that he keeps covered at all times. Blue finds the mystery fascinating, but it turns out to be much more prosaic than she'd expected.
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  • Femme Fatale: Hannah Schneider. Probably.
  • Left Field Description: Abundant, even for the most minor of characters.
  • Homage: Is both an homage and a deconstruction of Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Tartt's work is all about an elitist circle of students centering around a charismatic teacher. Pessl's work begins the same way, but the Bluebloods' elitism is nothing more than pretense; after the teacher's death, Blue breaks up with the rest of the Bluebloods, and it becomes more about the protagonist's investigation and relations with her father.
  • How We Got Here: The book begins with a murder, and spends about two-thirds of its pages building up to how it happened.
  • Insufferable Genius: Blue's father is obnoxiously proud of his own academic achievements, seems to enjoy rubbing his intelligence in other people's faces, and has a tendency to look down on people who are less intelligent or less well educated than him.
  • Mockspiracy: The Nightwatchmen may or may not be this.
  • Mockstery Tale: The book is about a young woman describing the events that led up to her finding her teacher dead in an apparent suicide. Throughout the story, several hints that the death was in fact murder and that a conspiracy may be involved are dropped, and the narrator forms a theory, but she can't prove anything, and the novel turns out to be more of a psychological drama and a coming-of-age story. It is really indicative that the book has references to the movie L'Avventura, which is a classic of this trope. Word of God says that there is a definite solution but the author won't say which one it is.
  • No Ending: The novel ends with a Riddle for the Ages. Also discussed as the ending of the film L'Aventura.
  • Parental Abandonment: Jade's mother leaves her to be raised by servants. Blue's mother dies before the book starts. Near the end, her father leaves in the middle of the night without a word.
  • Quote-to-Quote Combat: Blue and Gareth argue via literary quotes over whether she should tell the police her suspicions about the Nightwatchmen. She ends by quoting Gareth back at him.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Whether Blue solved the mystery or not, as well as the answers to many other unanswered questions, is left up to the reader. Literally, the end of the book is a multiple choice exam, which presents the reader with a number of different conclusions to various mysteries.
  • Something Only They Would Say: A variation: A few of the reasons of the reasons Blue thinks her dad and Hannah slept together at some point include things like Hannah's use of the simile "like butterflies" in a suspicious context, her fondness for the film L'Avventura, and other things which she describes as "her father's fingerprints".
  • Throw the Book at Them: In one scene towards the end of the novel, Blue throws a veritable barrage of books at her father during an argument.
  • Well, Excuse Me, Princess!: Jade is a spoiled brat and often insults Blue, but while drunk tells her that Blue is the only Blueblood she actually really likes.
  • With Friends Like These...: The Bluebloods all turn on Blue after Hannah Schneider's death.