I started this book a long long time ago but for some reason never progressed beyond chapter 4. Last week, I just said to myself, “see how short, how puny this book is? Of course you can finish it. You can do it.” I read and liked Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, so after I remembered Belzhar is inspired by that book, I got way more interested.
Jam is our precocious, troubled teenage girl. She’s sent to The Wooden Barn, a boarding school/slightly-mental-institution because of a complete meltdown after Reeve, her boyfriend’s death. Jam receives a journal in an advanced English class, and after she writes in it, she’s magically sucked back into her memory with Reeve. All her classmates in the class are experiencing the same thing, dealing with a pleasant version of their most traumatic memories. They even gave the magic place a secret code name, Belzhar after The Bell Jar by Silvia Plath. With this new paranormal development, Jam faces hard, life-changing choices. Now, I personally don’t really like Jam and think her a weak protagonist. Even though she’s emotionally fragile, it doesn’t excuse her from being absolutely bland and unrelatable. While grieving her boyfriend’s death, she latches on to another boy in her class to make herself feel better. This sends a rather toxic message to girls, because apparently we can’t survive a crisis without the rescue of dashing hero boys. In all, I had a hard time relating or even sympathizing with Jam, even though she has a lovely yummy name.
The rest of the cast is huge! We have (list time):
- Sierra, whose little brother was lost partly because of her. The guilt. The torment.
- Casey, who’s paralyzed from the waist down after her perpetually drunk mother crashed their car into a stone wall.
- Marc, whose life was ruined after witnessing a video of his dad and another woman in a compromising position.
- Griffin, who’s sulky and wears hoodie. He also burned down his family’s barn and killed a whole bunch of goats.
- Mrs. Q, who gave them these journals and who treats them like normal persons instead of fragile teacups.
- DJ, Jam’s roommate who has an eating disorder and who’s an interesting outsider to the English class’s clique.
Everyone’s got issues. I love how the class argues and quibbles but is ultimately there for each other. Everyone gets a chance at telling their traumatic story through their Belzhar experiences, and it’s amazing how these crabby, suffering teenagers support and comfort their own kind. I grant every one of these characters is not fully developed and is rather limited to one defining trait, but I like them way better than Jam, especially Sierra. I have a younger brother too, and I can’t imagine the horror and regret that kind of loss leaves behind.
I was not expecting a supernatural setting! I went in for a mental-illness/coming-of-age combo, like The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork or Paperweight by Meg Haston. The journal-writing and the subsequent magical jog down memory lane is such a lovely surprise. They write in the journal and blow through five pages per visit, making Belzhar a finite source. It’s a great alternative to flashbacks and gives us plenty of backstory without seeming like the author is guiltily stuffing in data into our faces. The real world setting is also nicely constructed. The windy, chilly atmosphere really goes with the gloomy thoughts of breakable teens.
Plot & Pacing
The pacing is great, because I didn’t feel it drag a bit. There’s always things going down. The plot, however, was a bit of a let-down. I expected some suicide-related plot twists, because Sylvia Plath. With such a quaint premise, you’d think the climax would be more shocking. The Big Reveal is a Big Disappointment. It’s so petty and anti-climactic I snorted. Sorry.
Some Final Thoughts
Ultimately, Belzhar gives us a cast of depressed, snappy teens, much sorrow and internal suffering, and an amazing otherworldly place. Wolitzer does nail some characteristics of depression, so it’s not entirely without mental illness. If you’re a fan of mental illness themed books or world-jumping via journals, come read Belzhar.
by Meg Wolitzer
If life were fair, Jam Gallahue would still be at home in New Jersey with her sweet British boyfriend, Reeve Maxfield. She’d be watching old comedy sketches with him. She’d be kissing him in the library stacks.
She certainly wouldn’t be at The Wooden Barn, a therapeutic boarding school in rural Vermont, living with a weird roommate, and signed up for an exclusive, mysterious class called Special Topics in English.
But life isn’t fair, and Reeve Maxfield is dead.
Until a journal-writing assignment leads Jam to Belzhar, where the untainted past is restored, and Jam can feel Reeve’s arms around her once again. But there are hidden truths on Jam’s path to reclaim her loss.
From New York Times bestselling author Meg Wolitzer comes a breathtaking and surprising story about first love, deep sorrow, and the power of acceptance.