Belzhar, by Meg Wolitzer

BelzharJam is so in love with Reeve that when he dies, she cannot function any more. She loved everything about him: his British accent, his sense of humor, and the secret meetings he arranged in the library stacks or on the soccer field. After almost a year of therapy and support, Jam’s parents admit that she’s not getting any better, so they decide to send her to The Wooden Barn, a special school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teenagers.

Jam’s first class is called Special Topics in English, a very exclusive class with only four other students. Mrs. Quenell chooses the students for this session each semester, and she plans to retire at the end of this session. The students will read only one writer, Sylvia Plath, for the entire semester, as well as writing in their beautiful, red leather journals. Alumni of the class have always called it “life-changing.” At first, the class wonders whether Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide, is really the best choice of authors for a bunch of people who have already been unsuccessful in dealing with their own issues. However, as Mrs. Quenell has asked them to “look out for one another,” they grow into a very close group. Soon, they are having intense experiences that they never expected, and eventually they realize that the only people they can talk to are the other people in that class.

Jam, short for Jamaica (a reference to Plath’s hometown), is what is called in literature “an unreliable narrator,” and I thought I was so done with unreliable narrators these days. However, Jam is not trying to deceive the reader; rather, she is deceiving herself. During the story, each of the students is forced to deal with the pivotal point in his or her past, and is faced with the decision to stay in the past or to move forward. Jam’s turn comes last. By the time she gets there, the reader may have an inkling of what’s to come, but Wolitzer spins it out so beautifully that we’re eager to go for the ride. Wolitzer uses magical realism to achieve her ends in this novel, quite unexpectedly, yet wholly effectively. Belzhar (Get it? Bell Jar?) is a profound coming-of-age story, but it’s for anyone at any age, because really, who has completely arrived?

I had never read Meg Wolitzer before this book, although I heard her speak at the SLJ Day of Dialog at Book Expo in May. She is wryly humorous as a speaker, and I identified with her somewhat as we are much of an age, whereas most young adult authors are, well, young adults. In Belzhar, Mrs. Quenell is also a woman of a certain age, but she is authentically wise, not just old, and in a realistic way, unlike a mountaintop guru. She sometimes questions herself, and she is extremely respectful of her students’ privacy.

Beyond the story line of the students’ struggles, however, is a paean to the power of the written word. I had forgotten how simple yet compelling Plath’s poetry could be, if I ever knew it. I appreciate poetry much more now than I did when I was young. Furthermore, a great deal of the change that the teens needed was effected as they wrote in their journals. So whether we’re reading someone else’s words or creating our own, powerful forces are shaping our interior lives in ways that we cannot predict. This is why literature classes are so essential to the lives of every human being. At one point, Wolitzer challenges the current compulsion to push students into STEM (math and science) careers, and away from English lit. classes. Do we really need another way to communicate even faster to even more people, if we really have nothing to say?

This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I cared deeply about all of the characters, particularly Jam. The writing was great, of course, and I found myself putting the book down for a few minutes, especially toward the end, just to think about what I’d read. I reread several passages so that I could take in the ideas and emotions more fully. Meg Wolitzer has also written adult novels, and I have added all of them to my “want to read” list.

Very highly recommended to everyone.

Disclaimer: I read a (signed! yay!) advance reader copy of this book. All opinions are solely my own, and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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