Published by Penguin on 9/30/2014
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The Wooden Barn is a school specifically designed to care for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent teenagers.” Teenagers like Jam Gallahue, who is “sent here because of a boy. His name was Reeve Maxfield, and I loved him and then he died.” When Jam arrives at The Wooden Barn, she finds out she is enrolled in a course called Special Topics in English, which is taught by veteran instructor Mrs. Quenell when she has the perfect set of students. Mrs. Quenell chooses to focus solely on the work of Sylvia Plath with Jam’s small class and gives each student a journal to write in weekly. Though they are reluctant at first, Jam and her classmates soon allow the journals to become both their bond and their place of healing known as Belzhar.
While the class discussions on Plath push them to approach reality in a new way, the students are thrown into their past through the journals. Wolitzer walks the line between her characters’ literary conversations and magic realism with ease. The dreamy of world of Belzhar that Jem and her classmates enter when writing feels less like fantasy and more like the place many of us drift to when we’re lost in words. Though the novel’s neatly wrapped closing chapter feels like a misstep, everything leading up to it is precisely placed.
“‘And you’re all so young. Plath’s protagonist is young, too. To be on the verge of your life and not be able to enter it… That ought to be prevented whenever possible.’
Everyone is paying very close attention to her. We’re talking about the novel, right? But maybe we’re not. We’re talking about ourselves. And I guess that’s what can start to happen when you talk about a good book.”
I fear some readers, particularly those more familiar with Wolitzer’s adult fiction, will see Jam’s final realization in Belzhar as a mere plot device and miss the smart observation behind it. As adults we so often forget the all-encompassing experience of being a teenager, which can make it easy to discount the emotions Belzhar‘s characters experience. I don’t know if my empathy stems from years of teaching girls like Jam or simply leftover sting from my own adolescence, but I was draped in feeling for the characters and appreciation for Wolitzer’s insight throughout my reading experience. My thoughts kept returning to readers who need this book, who need Mrs. Quenell and Belzhar; those who will find comfort in knowing they aren’t alone, even in situations much different from Jam’s, and begin to seek solace in the written word. Beyond bending plots or bits of magic realism, that comfort is Belzhar‘s greatest gift.