Charlotte Weekly’s ‘Speaking Volumes’ book club pick for May is completely different than any other book we’ve ever read before. This Ashville author Marisha Pessl’s first novel took critics by storm. I interviewed her shortly after her hardcover came out last summer the day before Janet Maslin of the New York Times published her review of Pessl’s work. It’s amazing what a difference a day can make! Overnight Pessl went from dreaming to be a novelist while slaving away at her day job in financial services to a celebrated writer.
Pessl’s book received rave reviews, both by myself and Maslin, who loved the freshness and invention of Pessl’s voice. “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” is modeled after the syllabus of a college literature course—36 chapters are named after everything from Othello to Paradise Lost to The Big Sleep—that culminates with a final exam. Narrator Blue Van Meer, the daughter of an itinerant academic, has an impressive vocabulary and a knack for esoteric citation. Following the mysterious death of her butterfly-obsessed mother, Blue and her father, Gareth, set out on a tour of picturesque college towns, never staying anyplace longer than a semester. This doesn't bode well for Blue's social life, but when the Van Meers settle in Stockton, N.C., for the entirety of Blue's senior year, she befriends a group of eccentric geniuses (referred to by their classmates as the Bluebloods) and their ringleader, film studies teacher Hannah Schneider. As Blue becomes enmeshed with Hannah and the Bluebloods, the novel becomes a murder mystery so intricately plotted that, after absorbing the late-chapter revelations, readers will be tempted to start again at the beginning in order to watch the tiny clues fall into place.
Think of this book as taking the best elements of Harry Potter and Agatha Christie twisted together with a dash of Vanity Fair magazine for pop-culture mentions. Last year, the book was named one of the New York Times’ best ten books for 2006.
Pessl, a native of Ashville, will join our book club meeting to talk about her exhilarating ride to success and the inspiration for one of the most unconventional and unusual books of the year. Join us for dessert and coffee on Monday, May 21 at 7 p.m., at Joseph-Beth Booksellers at SouthPark to discuss this brilliant book. R.S.V.P. by visiting http://www.josephbeth.com/.