BOOKS: The Novel as Exam - Not Quite an Alpha? ; WENDY BRANDMARK Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl VIKING Pounds 16.99 (514Pp) Pounds 15.50 (Free P&p) from 0870 079 8897
Blue Van Meer's coming of age is no ordinary tale of teenage angst and bad parenting. She shapes the tragic comedy of her young life into a course syllabus, a form loved by her academic father: "the scaffolding to which we may cling". But no syllabus has ever wandered so far from its pedagogic intentions.
After her butterfly-collector mother dies in a car accident, she begins a peripatetic life with her handsome, mercurial father. Though a distinguished scholar in political science, he never stays long enough to secure a permanent academic job. His affairs with the many women drawn to him are also transitory. Yet if he is not ambitious for himself beyond impressing his audience with his original mind, he is determined that his precocious 16-year-old daughter will become the valedictorian of her graduating class and go on to Harvard.
In that last year of high school, the longest period Blue has ever lived in one place since her mother's death, she attends an arty progressive school that boasts about the number of students who have become revolutionary performance artists. There she becomes part of a coterie of students who worship the charismatic film teacher, Hannah Schneider.
The "Bluebloods", a group of fey men and skinny women given to drugs, drink and one-night stands in seedy caf toilets, are feared for their cruel brilliance. Though Blue remains outside the madness of the group, she becomes almost infatuated with the mysterious Hannah, whose violent death begins the unravelling of her life.
It is difficult to sum up this almost encyclopaedic novel, with chapters named for great works - Pygmalion, Wuther-ing Heights, Things Fall Apart - and a "final exam" on characters and themes that no reader will pass. Marisha Pessl's first fiction begins as a comic road story, quickly becomes a Bildungsroman and ends as a mystery. …