A dizzying, dazzling first novel that comes across like a season of Veronica Mars if written by Vladimir Nabokov, “Special Topics” is an absolute literary feast and easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. Marisha Pessl has written what you start off thinking is a smart, overly-literate coming-of-age-novel that evolves into a whodunit mystery; all the details of plot and character you previously thought were superficial and stylish become clues to a intricate, glittering puzzle, as late-book revelations call into question all we previously knew, Usual Suspects style.
Wait. I’m getting too excited. Let me back up.
“Special Topics” is narrated by a precocious girl, Blue Van Meer, who’s father is an itinerant college professor, too educated and impatient to teach anywhere for long. The Van Meers settle in a small North Carolina town for Blue’s senior year at a prestigious private school before entering Harvard. There, the socially awkward Blue falls in with the upper-crust crowd, the Bluebloods, who gather at the house of Hannah Schneider, a part-time teacher at the school who treats this group of teens like members of a literary salon. A death occurs in the circle which is the initial thread which Blue starts to tug that brings the scaffolding of her tidy and completely unquestioned life down around her.
The majority of the book is the unraveling of Blue’s year – the outsider who falls in with the right crowd and observes and comments on their larger-than-life drama. Author Pessl wonderfully captures Blue’s voice, and the novel itself is written like a term paper as Blue will cite details and put them in parenthesis, like the author, year, and edition of a book someone’s reading. This sounds distracting and obnoxious, but it makes absolute sense in the context of the novel. Characters are memorable and three-dimensional, and even though we sense that there may be more to this book as it originally seems, we go along with Blue’s narration and follow her reasoning.
It’s not a perfect book, by any means. There are giant weaknesses, all of which are either understandable or charming. This is a first novel, and like many first novels by literary types (Michael Chabon, I’m looking at you,) “Special Topics” goes out of its way to break the record of number of soaring metaphors per line, and minor details like the way someone’s dressed might get an entire page and a half of text where Pessl makes the literary, historical, film, and pop-culture references rain like dollar bills at a strip club after the Source Awards. And the book is a long one. Unless you possess superhuman ability, this isn’t a read you dash off at the beach in a weekend.
But: the book works. And it sings. It’s like a rich chocolate cake, to eaten slowly and savored, not to be gulped and consumed. If this sounds like your type of book, give it a hundred pages. And if that doesn’t do it for you, give it a hundred more.