I expected to like Belzhar, by Meg Wolitzer for a lot of reasons. I fell in love with Meg Wolitzer’s teenage characters in The Interestings this summer. Her grasp on teenage voice and teenage priorities made me wish for her to write something YA (since I got my wish maybe I should have asked for a million dollars instead). I also was super pumped about the connection to Sylvia Plath. Furthermore the idea of a boarding school specifically for “highly intelligent, emotionally fragile teenagers” tickled me. Don’t you wish you went to that school? I do…
Or at least I did, until I read the book and realized that different types of heartbreaking trauma are what got each of the characters sent to The Wooden Barn (and eventually into Belzhar). Anyway, I expected to like this book and I did. Here is why.
Jam gets sent to The Wooden Barn because of a boy. Or so she says. This isn’t what her parents write on her application to get into the school (something about the lingering effects of trauma), but Jam knows it’s the truth. She’s there because she can’t cope with the death of her sweet, British boyfriend, Reeve. With him gone, she’s stopped interacting with her friends and family. She doesn’t want to do anything but relive their short, but emotionally intense, relationship with him over and over in her head.
This is exactly what Jam gets to do when she’s accepted into the incredibly selective Special Topics in English class. The class only has five students and devotes an entire semester to one author. This year the author is Sylvia Plath. However, what is really special about the class is the red journals each student is given to write in. Because through writing in this journal Jam can relive all her experiences with Reeve. She can kiss him and feel his arms around her and have the same silly, flirtatious conversations over and over again. But there are some truths about Jam’s past that Jam has a hard time confronting. Also what happens when the semester is over and the journal runs out?
Doesn’t this sound intriguing?
There are lots of mixed reviews floating around about this book. I think a lot of it comes down to whether your sympathize with Jam, and if you buy into the magical realism of the red journals. I did both, with enthusiasm, and that kept me furiously turning pages to find out how Jam’s story (and those of the other students in the class which I’ve unfairly ignored in my summary) ended. If you can’t do either, I can see why you wouldn’t like this book.
My suggestion is to try to approach it with a willing suspension of disbelief. The characters are fully drawn and the writing is flawless. A familiarity with Plath might enhance your reading of the book, but it is by no means necessary to know anything about her to enjoy Belzhar. This is a very unique story and voice within the YA category, so I hope some of you read the book and enjoy it as much as I did.