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Cutting through gimmicks to the heart of a mystery

Special Topics in Calamity Physics
By Marisha Pessl
Viking, 514 pp., $25.95

In the beginning there was Donna Tart t and her brainy, blazing-onto-the-literary-scene academic thriller, `` The Secret History. " The formula she made big is pretty simple: a group of smarty-pants students bond together around an illustrious teacher, and then a mystery (and murder) ensue . There's no denying that Marisha Pessl's `` Special Topics in Calamity Physics " owes its DNA to the prodigiously talented Tart t, but Pessl also needs to give a brief nod to Muriel Spark 's ``The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," Curtis Sittenfeld's ``Prep," and even Laurence Sterne's ``Tristram Shandy."

While Tart t's heroine and her student compatriots were dark and intellectually icy, Pessl introduces us to the sunnier Blue van Meer, who is warm, likable, and flat-out funny. Haunted since childhood by the mysterious death of her butterfly-obsessed mother, Blue is an engaging vagabond who keeps close ties with her father, Gareth. A womanizer who harbors his own mystery, Gareth is a visiting lecturer in political science who tries out college campuses the way he might canapes. Usually the duo stays in one place for just six months, but Blue has managed to talk her father into staying a year in Stockton, N.C., where she's a senior at the uber-tony St. Gallway School. Blue is a bit of an outsider, but she navigates her world through a head brimming with film, book , and cultural references, and if her coming of age isn't a hundred percent original, it's a whole lot of fun all the same.

Part mystery, part suspense, and part psychological drama, this is, at its heart, a book about relationships -- both real and imagined -- and the desperate need to belong. Blue's mysterious mother haunts the pages like a refrain. The bond Blue shares with her father seems airtight, even when he veers toward insufferable know-it-allness, and it's this moving family relationship that takes the novel out of Tartt-land. But the key relationship, and the major story, is the one between Blue and the enigmatic film studies teacher, Hannah Schneider.

Hannah is relatively young and beautiful, and she presides over a magic circle of students: Milton, Charles, Leulah, Jade, and, of course, Blue. Each student, it seems, is hiding something about his or her past. Blue is given entree into this charmed group, the members of which quickly remake her and take her to their bosoms. Or do they? Hannah holds court with gourmet foods and esoteric opinions, allowing the students to bask in her light. But who is she? What is her deep, dark secret, and what will it meant to Blue? Things begin to take a raw turn when the group decides to crash a costume party at Hannah's house, much to Hannah's fury. One of Hannah's mysterious male friends is found dead in the swimming pool. Was he drowned? Or did he simply fall drunkenly in the pool and let nature take its course? The event galvanizes the friends, who decide to learn all they can about their elusive teacher. All go on a camping trip, and a tragedy ensues, one that ostracizes Blue from the magic circle, and makes her dig into the mystery that is Hannah on her own. Slowly, inevitably, the answers begin to rise to the surface, culminating in an ending that is as moving as it is satisfying.

Here, structure is as important as plot. The novel is built around a syllabus for a class on the great works of literature; the 36 chapters are named after movies and books, and there's a bit of a thematic riff going on in each. Still, despite the sprightliness of the idea, it's all a little precious, a little too clever for its own good. The gimmicky visual aids (the drawings are deliberately not very good) don't serve any purpose except to make you more aware of the author than of Blue, and they impede the flow of the story. It's too clear that Pessl is expertly pulling the strings, which makes the whole world of the novel feel a little too signed, sealed, and delivered for the reader's total satisfaction. But while the structure and plot are familiar, the writing is almost nerve- rackingly original. Lines jump out like salmon swimming upstream. Blue talks about her father, who ``picked up women the way certain wool pants can't help but pick up lint." She talks about ``deboning the old musicals." At one point, Pessl uses ``bumblebee" as a verb -- and it works.

``Never presume to know what a person, is, was, or will be capable of," says Blue's father at the beginning of the novel. I'd say that description fits authors, including Pessl. While `` Special Topics in Calamity Physics " seems prepackaged for bestsellerdom, I'm much more curious about what this talented writer will do next.

Caroline Leavitt's latest novel is `` Girls in Trouble. "

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