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A story so smart it's like taking the SATs

A professor's daughter aces a murder investigation along with her physics exam.

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Reading group discussion questions aside, most of us don't like being quizzed on our summer reading. So, it takes real chutzpah to stick a final exam at the end of a book – particularly when the book in question is a debut novel.

Chutzpah, Marisha Pessl has – and in abundance. Her thoroughly impressive debut, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, is a murder mystery/coming-of-age story that is organized as a course on great books, complete with copious annotations (both real and made up), visual aids (deliberately, I hope, amateurish pencil drawings), and the aforementioned exam. (Sample question: "Blue Van Meer has read too many books. T/F")

Fans of Dave Eggers's "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," and those who enjoyed the footnotes in Susannah Clarke's fabulous "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" as much as the plot, head for the bookstore with all speed. If you prefer a more Shaker-like type of storytelling, devoid of verbal curlicues and ironic flourishes, you might want to drop out of this particular class.

Teenager Blue Van Meer has averaged three towns a year since her mother's death, when Blue was in kindergarten. Her charismatic father has made a living as a peripatetic professor at bottom-feeding colleges around the US, rarely staying more than a semester and leaving broken hearts behind him. (Blue calls his disappointed lovers the "June Bugs." None of them lasts more than a month.)

Gareth Van Meer doesn't talk, he declaims, making pronouncements that Blue carefully chisels into stone (along with loving yet candid commentary). " 'Always live your life with your biography in mind,' Dad was fond of saying. 'Naturally, it won't be published until you have a Magnificent Reason, but at the very least you will be living grandly.' It was painfully obvious Dad was hoping his posthumous biography would be reminiscent not of 'Kissinger: The Man' (Jones, 1982) or 'Dr. Rhythm: Living with Bing' (Grant, 1981) but something along the lines of the New Testament or the Qu'ran."

Blue approaches each school like Jane Goodall observing a new family of chimpanzees. Students aren't individuals, they are types: "Tanned Sporto With Shiny Legs," "Spoiled Pretender," and my favorite, "The Goody Two-Shoes Whose Uptight Parents, Ted and Sue, Wished to Prevent Her Ascent Into Adulthood as if It Were the Mumps."


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