Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

Belzhar by Meg WolitzerBelzhar by Meg Wolitzer
Published by Penguin on 9/30/2014
Source: Publisher
Pages: 272
Buy from IndieBound

 

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.

 

  • I had this one on my TBR, but then read a couple other so-so reviews…and the magical realism part kind of turns me off. But, you seem to like it more than the others did?! Is it completely different than The Interestings (I loved that one)?

    • It’s YA, which you have to remember going in. Not with the thought that the writing should be watered down, which it’s not, but with the mindset that the audience is completely different than her adult fiction. I think that’s why some people might be having a hard time. If you focus on the writing and the characters themselves, I think you can definitely see links to The Interestings, but the story is quite different because it’s focused at a different demographic.

  • If you hadn’t mentioned the use of Plath within the story, then I probably would pass this one up. I’d had it on my TBR, but then took it off since I didn’t enjoy The Interestings all that much. However, now I’m intrigued by the Plath and magical realism – this sounds like it could definitely be my cup of tea. Thanks ;)

    • It depends on what your issues with The Interestings were, but I would give this a try. It’s a super quick read!

  • I like what you said in your last paragraph. I might look into this one for my daughter.

  • Ti Reed

    I heard someone say this book was The Interestings, for kids. Would you agree?

    • Hmmmmm, not exactly. Meg Wolitzer’s writing style is still there, but this book is much more focused on the impact of loss and moving through feelings of depression. It’s very personal, despite the friendships that are built, where The Interestings is centered on the dynamics between people and how they change over time.

      • Ti Reed

        Okay. Good to know. I just got a copy from the library!

  • I did a lot of eye-rolling at Jam and her crazy intense my-life-is-over feelings, but whenever I caught myself doing that I had to remind myself that that’s what being a teenager is really like! I didn’t love this book as much as Wolitzer’s adult books, but now I want to re-read it!

    • You’re right – that deep, totally off-base feeling of connection is exactly how some girls respond, but it doesn’t mean their emotions are any less valid and I think that’s what I loved so much about it. I really wish it had ended with Jam’s final trip to Belzhar, since the end bothered me a little more the second time around, but my re-read was just as good (though I agree with you that I think I’ll always prefer adult to YA).

  • i have a B&N gift card from my birthday (back in August!) that I have yet to use, and I’m pretty much convinced I need to put it toward getting this book! It sounds wonderful.

  • Words for Worms

    I’m hanging my head in shame that I’ve yet to read any Wolitzer. Siiigh.

  • I’ll fully own my hard-heartedness when looking at Jam and you’re right about teenage emotion but I do remember those times and her reaction was not psychologically believable for me, whereas the other characters were. Or maybe it is the fact that the grown-ups’ reactions were not believable. At I thought she was spoiled and needed a snap-out-of-it moment.

    That one character aside, I did think it was a very interesting take on dealing with difficult life events. Wolitzer knows how to write life.

    • I think it must come from being with girls in the classroom and watching situations like Jam’s unfold, but I didn’t really see it as unbelievable (though it’s more of a stretch than the other characters, for sure). I guess I saw being sent to The Wooden Barn as her snap-out-of-it moment. She was depressed and her parents didn’t know what else to do with her.

  • thomasatmyporch

    Hmm, Wolitzer and magical realism, I don’t think I would have put those two things together. Does one need to know Plath to enjoy?

    • It’s definitely a unique mix that she actually handles really well. I think it’s a little harder for her usual readers to deal with the YA aspect than that, actually. The connections with Plath are explained pretty clearly, since she’s taught in the class, so it’s not really necessary to know her well before reading it.