Special Topics in Calamity Physics – Marisha Pessl

To re-read or not to re-read?

This is the question we all probably ask ourselves quite often. I have only a few books that I re-read over and over again. This book was not one of them, but Kira at Sorry Television and Cathy at 746books have reminded me about it and how much I enjoyed reading it probably almost ten years ago, so I decided to give it a try.

It is a story of Blue van Meer and her father Gareth. Blue is sixteen and extremely intelligent, her father is an itinerant professor of politics, moving from one small university to the next, because he despises the prominent ones. Because of this Blue changes schools 2-3 times a year and her only lasting relationship is with her father. Blue is very well read thanks to Gareth; she takes her isolation stoically, convinced that she is different and possibly better than kids she meets on her way.

We meet them when Gareth decides that for the last year of Blue’s school they have to settle in one place. They end up in Stockton, Blue joining prestigious St. Gallway school. There she meets Hannah Schneider, film teacher, and her selected favored group of pupils – The Bluebloods – Jade, Leulah, Charles, Nigel and Milton. Blue is invited by Hannah to their weekly dinners and gradually she is accepted into their group. Throughout the year events turn darker little by little. For the first time in her life Blue has a chance to experience teenage life (I won’t say typical, because The Bluebloods life seems a bit over the top) with all the fun, bad decisions and lying to parents. Towards the end of the year Hannah takes them camping in the mountains, a trip that ends in disaster and Blue being devastated and completely isolated. She feels it is her responsibility to unpick the mystery of Hannah Schneider.

The book has multiple references to literature and cinema and now, having read and seen more, I could have more fun unpicking them. The story is interesting, even if it stalls a bit in the middle of the book, when it happens Blue’s erudite narration becomes a little irritating. It all picks up towards the great finale that leaves us wondering what is real and how much have we actually been manipulated.

When I read this book for the first time I loved it, now I’m not so sure. I enjoyed the beginning, re-acquainting myself with Blue and Gareth and their special brand of snobbery, forced by their isolation and chaotic way of living where their relationship is the only constant thing. Later the book seems to get a bit pretentious, Blue showing off her knowledge in all circumstances, on the other hand she is using it as a shield. As the plot picks up and mysteries and lies multiply, Blue has to grow up quickly and I was pulled into the story again.

The book questions to what extent we know the people we live with. How we all create images, fake impressions, how easily we manipulate people with half-truths and how quickly teenager pick up on this and follow the pattern. It is also a great game of references and depending on everyone’s previous reading experience people will respond to this book differently. It is also a coming of age story, but told in a very original way and with great humour. What we have here is a great story, interesting characters, original narration that invites the reader to play and a lot of humour and distance.

I still am wondering if I should have re-read it, before it was this great book I read in university, it felt special, not it is one of many good coming of age books, smart, witty and very good, but not special anymore, as if my experience stole the sense of awe that I had while reading this book for the first time.

Do you re-read? What was your biggest re-read disappointment? Or maybe you were lucky and discovered a hidden gem during re-read?


This is book #1 of my 20 Books of Summer hosted by Cathy at 746books.

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska

10 thoughts on “Special Topics in Calamity Physics – Marisha Pessl

  1. Really interesting – I re-read rarely, because my TBR pile is enormous! I do try and re-read Middlemarch every few years though, and have a different relationship to it each time.

    One of my friends has 3 books she re-reads every year (one of which is War and Peace!)

    Its tricky, because you do risk the memory of a book becoming tainted by a disappointing re-read at some point, like you experienced. I do want to try and make more time for re-reads though 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I reread maybe two books a year, at most. The gravity of my massive TBR is too strong! But I always mean to reread. Right now I’m rereading Middlemarch and it really has been a satisfying experience. A book has to be particularly special for me to reread.

    I’m sorry that this one was a bit of a disappointment. I do feel that some books speak to us in particular ways at certain points in our lives. After all, we do so much growing through the years even if we don’t realize it.

    Have you read Pessl’s Night Film? I’ve not read Special Topics but our book group read Night Film and it was a TRIP.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My TBR and my endless curiosity about new books is the main reason why I don’t re-read very often. You’re right, some books are for some stages in life and I’m happy I read Special Topics while I was a student, I could relate to it a lot more than now.
      I haven’t read the Night Film, adding it to my wishlist now! Thanks for the tip.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I used to re-read a lot, but too many new books these days means I don’t do it so often. I’m often scared to re-read books that I loved when I was a teenager or early 20s – I think at that age in particular, we often find books emotional and ‘profound’ because they speak to kind of turmoil we tend to be going through around those ages – and then years later we find it hard to get back to that place. I’ll be re-reading Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence sometime soon, and am dreading it – it was one of my major loves in my teens, but I fear I might hate Lawrence’s style now…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There is always this fear of disappointment when re-reading a book, after Special Topics I think I’ll stop re-reading for a while, but I also had cases of books that I rediscovered when re-reading and loved more than when I read them first, so it’s always a bit of hit and miss

      Liked by 1 person

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