Blue van Meer was never going to be the typical “girl next door” — her father, Gareth, made quite sure of that. Having lost her mother at a very young age, Blue forms a very strong bond with her father, and thereafter, the riotous, seemingly invincible father-daughter team moves from town to town, following his teaching career all over the country. A professor of political science — “interested broadly in political and economic revitalization, military and humanitarian involvement, and post-conflict renewal of third world nations” — Gareth speaks the language of upheaval, riots, and revolution. He is brilliant, passionate, and loving. He is also intimidating, arrogant, manipulative, and self-absorbed — shutting down most people within the first few moments of an interaction. With the exception of odd, brief affairs, Gareth focuses all of his energy and attention on his daughter and his intellectual pursuits. An accomplished writer and activist, Gareth renounces all that is merely average, and instead pushes his daughter to accomplish great things, reminding her: “Everyone is responsible for the page-turning tempo of his or her Life Story.” While his love for Blue is obvious, Gareth relentlessly pushes Blue to think independently and make up her own mind about all the tantalizing options (and false promises) the world will throw her way. Together they read the classics, argue about politics, laugh at the mundane, and conquer the small college towns in their path. Long immersed in Gareth’s competitive world of academia — grading his college students’ papers, dining with his colleagues — Blue is treated as an intellectual equal by her father and develops a great love of books and art and history. And as a result of their relentless travel, Blue is far more worldly, mature, independent, and exceptionally well read than any other 17 year old you are ever likely to meet. Blue’s close relationship with her father also goes a long way toward filling the voids that her mother’s death has left in their lives. As Blue’s senior year approaches — and Gareth’s sadness over her inevitable graduation and departure takes root — Gareth surprises his daughter with something she has never had: a year in one place. A whole year, uninterrupted by the demands of Gareth’s career, to settle in, relax, and finish high school.
And yet, as Blue storms into this final chapter of her childhood, we see her struggle to get her bearings in the somewhat cruel world of adolescence. Her immersion in the classics has prepared her for a thinking, feeling, contemplative world — not the idle rebellion, silly recklessness, and utter ambivalence of her new teenage friends. Although Blue must wrangle the usual laundry list of high school concerns, she manages to do it hilariously, though she must navigate a new town, school, and friends; the mercurial emotions of mean-girl, Jade; a sudden preoccupation with her appearance; gossipy classmates and meddlesome faculty; embarrassment and drama brought on by her philandering father; securing her place as valedictorian and her admission to Harvard; and, of course, boys — specifically, the nice boy she doesn’t want vs. the mean boy she does. But not all of the drama in Blue’s life is of the teenage variety — some of it is quite adult — and this is where the story takes off. Enter Hannah Schneider, a beautiful, mysterious woman (as Blue recalls, “I simply felt somewhere, at some time, she’d been the toast of something”) who is also a teacher at Blue’s school. Hannah takes Blue under her wing from almost the moment Blue arrives in town. Through Hannah, Blue is drafted into the “Bluebloods,” a clique of somewhat subversive and mildly scandalous kids assembled by Hannah for reasons unclear. Despite the serious age difference, Hannah hosts weekly dinner parties for the kids — cooking and smoking and playing jazz — catering to her adoring audience. But as Blue and the Bluebloods become increasingly fascinated by Hannah, and delve further into her shadowy past, Blue suddenly finds herself in the background of a mysterious death and in the foreground of another — tragedies, possibly intertwined, which ultimately only Blue is committed enough (and competent enough) to unravel. In the wake of these strange occurrences, and with no one left to trust, Blue must commit to her ideals more fervently than her father has anticipated, though the result may be his undoing.
While the introduction promises a full-on whodunit, the reader really doesn’t feel that way for the first several hundred pages. Those pages are dedicated to description in its richest sense — making sure you know each of the story’s characters down to the finest detail. Pessl’s debut is wonderfully fearless and playful in description, and as Blue narrates the nail-biting events of her senior year, she aligns almost every situation with a scene from a famous novel, poem, play, movie, painting, or song — be it classic, popular, or obscure (“Leontyne Bennett skillfully dissected in The Commonwealth of Lost Vanities (1969) Virgil’s renowned quotation: ‘Love conquers all.’ ‘For centuries upon centuries,’ he writes on p. 559, ‘we have been misinterpreting this famed trio of words…”); or with a scene from history (“Revolution is slow burning, occurring only after decades of oppression and poverty, but the exact hour of its unleashing is often a moment of fateful mishap.”) ; or some bit of science (“It was what accidental deaths did to people, made everyone’s sea floor irregular and uneven, causing tidal currents to collide, surge upward, thereby resulting in small yet volatile eddies churning at everybody’s surface.”). Barring such a familiar reference — perhaps finding herself in an unanticipated situation — Blue often took some observation or bit of advice from her father. (“Dad, on Having a Secret, Well-Laid Plan: ‘There is nothing more delirious to the human mind.'”). Suffice it to say, no scene in this book is without its own highly descriptive corollary, and the result is thoroughly entertaining. Although I have to admit that a handful of references left me lost (perhaps a few more than a handful), it seems unfair to blame the author — I’m simply not as well read either Blue van Meer or, presumably, Marisha Pessl.
It is not only Blue’s character that Pessl has so richly drawn. Other characters also come alive with her descriptions, and perhaps none more so than Blue’s father. Gareth manages to both seduce and infuriate the reader just as often and easily as the many hapless, small-town women trailing in his wake. Both larger than life and painfully human, I found myself either enamored with or terrified by him on a page by page basis. Whether he was quoting the great works (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments….”); lecturing his daughter (“The act of being personally misconstrued … informed to one’s face one is no more complex than a few words haphazardly strung together on a clothesline — well, it can gall the most self-possessed of individuals.”); or facing what is left of the world (“We are under an invincible blindness as to the true and real nature of things….”), Gareth van Meer’s stern observations and unapologetic musings are some of the best lines in this story. “‘L’Avventura,’ Dad said, ‘has the sort of ellipsis ending most American audiences would rather undergo a root canal than be left with, not only because they loathe anything left to the imagination — we’re talking about the country that invented spandex — but also because they are a confident, self-assured nation… And the idea that none of us can truly know anything at all — not the lives of our friends, or family, not even ourselves — is a thought they’d rather be shot in the arm with their own semi-automatic rifle than face head-on. Personally, I think there’s something terrific about not knowing, relinquishing man’s feeble attempt to control. When you throw up your hands, say ‘Who knows?’ you can get on with the sheer gift of being alive …'”
Like her father, Blue’s character is cunning, hilarious, and dear. She is really the perfect heroine for a story like this, which is equal parts darkness and comedy. When the mystery that has been building so long finally avalanches down on her, the reader thoroughly enjoys watching Blue dig her way out. True to life, Blue’s progress lies in the journey, not the outcome. Whether Blue ultimately solves the mystery or not (I’ll leave that to other readers), her evolution is really learning to let go of solutions altogether — that tendency to quantify, deduce, criticize, compare, classify, and dismiss. As we find out in some hilariously bare postscripts to the story, Blue really has graduated, and not merely in the academic sense. In those final pages, we catch a glimpse of Blue experiencing the world with a more open mind, letting go of harsh judgment, and realizing the great life that is out there waiting for every one of us when we finally manage to let go of what we thought life was going to be. To Pessl’s great credit, Blue’s graduation speech is truly a thing of beauty — and, to me, the climax of an exceedingly skilled and clever novel — although no one in Blue’s audience shows much, if any, reaction. Which seemed exactly right to me. After all, “… each of us could choose whatever materials we liked for our rickety boat.” And like all the best moments in life, you really can’t depend on anyone around you to take notice. They are yours and yours alone, those rare and beautiful moments that stick with you your whole life and, in your final hours, turn out to be the very culmination of your being.