In brief: Jam is sent to a boarding school for teenagers who have gone through exceptionally hard times. There, she is chosen for the Special Topics in English class, which involves studying The Bell Jar and a journal that takes the writer on an other-worldly experience. Can this help her and her new friends to heal?
The good: All of it – the premise, the twist, the revelation.
The not-so-good: Need more!
Why I chose it: Thank you Simon & Schuster for getting me to try a book outside of my usual genres.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
My rating: 10 out of 10
Prior to receiving a copy of Belzhar, I had heard of Meg Wolitzer. I have The Interestings on my wish list and I recall vividly the buzz over Belzhar at BEA. I’m generally not much of a YA reader (so many books, so little time plus so many of the current buzz books in this genre seem to be so sad) but I was hooked by Belzhar from the first sentence. Reading Belzhar not only brought back memories of being a teenager, but it made me remember why I was so passionate about YA as a teenager. To quote young(er) people, this book has ‘ALL THE FEELS’. It covers love, loss, hurt, rage, helplessness and the courage to move on. Belzhar is a beautifully written book that captures the swirling nature of teenage emotions that have been put through the wringer and offers hope.
The book is primarily straightforward fiction, but with an other-worldly twist. Some might call it magical realism. It’s not straight-out fantasy, more of one element taken to the ‘what-if’ element. But before I explain that part, I need to tell you the background so you can see why I enjoyed it so much. The protagonist is Jam (short for Jamaica) and she’s been sent to a boarding school for fragile teens who have experienced some form of great loss or change in their lives. In Jam’s words, she ended up at The Wooden Barn school because of a boy. Not just any boy, but Reeve Maxfield, who Jam makes sound like Robert Pattinson meets Harry Potter with a splash of David Beckham. Reeve is the love of Jam’s life but he died. All Jam has to remember him by is a jar of English strawberry jam (get it? Jam for Jam?) and memories.
Jam is selected to be in a class called Special Topics in English, much to the envy of her roommate, DJ (who is there for ‘food issues’ that she never expands on). This is a handpicked class where they study one author, but the participants all seem to come out ‘changed’. The students of the class are all quite different, but as the term progresses they become much closer and the source of each one’s tragedy is revealed. Part of what binds them is the confession that their weekly journal takes them out of their world and into a calming, safe place before the pivotal event occurred. They decide to call it ‘Belzar’ after the book they are studying, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.
The book is beautiful for several reasons – one, it’s morbidly fascinating to find out what befell each student; two, the growing friendship between the students is a wonder to read as it unfolds and three, the book is gut wrenchingly honest. It takes some time for Jam to open up about what happened between Reeve and her, but when it does, it’s perfectly written. Wolitzer writes about the topic of mental illness with sensitivity, care and zero judgement. I think the building of the characters as real people really helped as the reader got to know them before their big secrets were revealed. I love how YA these days is not afraid to tackle serious issues and does so in a way that teaches, not preaches.
The magical realism part of the journals is not a huge thing in the book if you’re someone who prefers straight fiction – it can be read as the students going through the grieving process rather than being transported to a magical world where they can communicate with those they’ve lost. I particularly enjoyed how through Jam’s visits to Belzhar, she starts to become a bit bored with Reeve as he’s not interested in what’s happening in her life currently. He’s part of her past and she’s moving on.
A beautiful story that sensitively deals with grief and friendship, Belzhar is more than a book for teens. It’s a book for everyone.