SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS. By Marisha Pessl.
Like Alan Bennett’s delectable and brilliant play “The History Boys,” now on Broadway, “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” tells the story of a wise newcomer who joins a circle of students who orbit a charismatic teacher with a tragic secret. The newcomer, a motherless waif named Blue van Meer, spent most of her life driving between college towns with her genius poli-sci professor father, Gareth. To kill time on their drives, they discuss radical class warfare, riff on Homer and Steinbeck, recite movie dialogue and poems by Blake, Neruda and Shakespeare, and read Hollywood biographies — from a tell-all by Louis B. Mayer’s maid to blow-by-blows on Howard Hughes and Cary Grant. Gareth is fond of making oracular statements, which his daughter laps up as if they were Churchill’s: “Everyone is responsible for the page-turning tempo of his or her Life Story,” he tells her. And, he cautions, “never try to change the narrative structure of someone else’s story.” Tightly swaddled in her daughter-dad duad, Blue does not know that her story is someone else’s. Only gradually does she learn that the frantic tempo of her life has been conducted by forces she does not suspect.
You could compare this road-tripping duo to Humbert Humbert and his Lo — leaving out the sexual component (no, this book is not one of those plucky, degraded memoirs so dear to popular tastes) — but their truer fictional ancestors are Moses Pray and his (probable) daughter, Addie Loggins, chugging across the heartland in “Paper Moon,” delighting in each other’s shrewd and charming company as they dupe the yokels. But the action of this tale takes place once the car wheels come to rest, in Stockton, N.C.