Narrator: Jorjeana Marie
Published by Penguin on September 30th 2014
Genres: Coming of Age, Paranormal, Young Adult
Source: Audiobook from library, Finished copy from publisher
If life were fair, Jam Gallahue would still be at home in New Jersey with her sweet British boyfriend, Reeve Maxfield. She’d be watching old comedy sketches with him. She’d be kissing him in the library stacks. She certainly wouldn’t be at The Wooden Barn, a therapeutic boarding school in rural Vermont, living with a weird roommate, and signed up for an exclusive, mysterious class called Special Topics in English.
But life isn’t fair, and Reeve Maxfield is dead. Until a journal-writing assignment leads Jam to Belzhar, where the untainted past is restored, and Jam can feel Reeve’s arms around her once again. But there are hidden truths on Jam’s path to reclaim her loss.
Belzhar was one of those books that I heard mixed reviews of this spring, and I was on the fence about picking it up. The novel is inspired by Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and fans of Plath’s book seem to agree that Wolitzer did not do Plath’s novel justice. But the book called to me one day, especially after I found the audiobook on the shelf at the library, and I quickly found myself sucked into the story.
I’ve never read The Bell Jar, which may be why I was able to enjoy Belzhar on its own without comparing it to a novel that has been around for such a long time (note: I do plan to read The Bell Jar one day, I promise!). Upon starting the book, I was immediately not a fan of the protagonist, Jam Gallahue. Jam has closed herself off from the world. She’s clearly suffering from some sort of mental illness, and has been sent to a rural Vermont boarding school for highly intelligent teens who would benefit from a therapeutic environment. Jam ends up in a class called “Special Topics in English” with only four other students, and they quickly realize that there is something strange that happens when they write in their journals for class: each student is transported to a place where he or she can relive life before the traumatic event that landed him or her in the school. The students dub this place “Belzhar” and come together to discuss their experiences there. Through the sharing of these stories, readers get to learn about these traumatic events and how the characters move forward.
Jam was a pretty unlikable protagonist, but she was clearly purposefully written as a frustrating character. She is the only student who fails to share her experiences with her classmates, but she also fails to share these with readers. All we know throughout much of the novel is that Jam fell in love with an incredible British boy, they were together for forty-one days, and then he died. The story explores her relationship with this boy, which feels incredibly instalove-y and over the top, but leaves the details about how it all ended until the end of the story. Jam is clearly unstable, but the story leaves readers questioning exactly why and how she is unstable.
The pacing of this novel, combined with the mystery elements, kept me reading. I was a bit put-off about how crazy in love Jam was with this boy whom she knew for forty-one days, and I wasn’t sure of what Wolitzer had in store to make all of this make sense…or if I was supposed to empathize with Jam. When I got to the final pages of the novel, however, I couldn’t put it down and it ALL MADE SENSE. Wolitzer surprised me quite a bit and I appreciated that. Jam watches each of her classmates learn that Belzhar is not a real place, and watches each of them make the decision about how to move on. Though Jam’s journey is different, it is interesting to see, in the end, how she choses to deal with her grief.
FINAL GRADE: B
Sylvia Plath enters the story via the curriculum in the English class (they spend the whole semester studying only the works of Plath) and through a (small) connection to a character in the story. However, I imagine that the themes and topics of the story are intended as a hat tip to Plath. I also imagine that Plath did it all better, but I can’t say that for sure. But that doesn’t mean that Belzhar doesn’t have merit of its own. It’s a short story about grief with a shocking ending that is, overall, very well written. I was glad I picked this one up and enjoyed the ride.