Published by Dutton Children's Books on September 30, 2014
Genres: Young Adult
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“I was sent here because of a boy. His name was Reeve Maxfield, and I loved him and then he died,” begins Belzhar. Judging from this opening, I expected that the book would be a pretty basic story of a first love lost too soon. But I was pleasantly surprised. Although the novel definitely revolves around Jam Gallahue (yes, there are lots of breakfast-condiment inspired puns on her name) and her struggle to come to terms with losing Reeve, it’s also an exploration of friendship, the process of letting go, and the power of words, both when reading and writing.
The name of the novel is actually a play on the title of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, and Wolitzer crafts a clever bit of magical realism that turns Plath’s novel into a place of self-discovery. The Bell Jar is pretty much a high school required-reading-list given these days, but it’s one that often haunts us, whether it’s because we relate to Plath’s tortured Esther Greenwood or because we can’t understand her at all. Plus there’s the fact that Plath’s brilliant life and tragic death mirrored Esther’s so closely. It’s a powerful piece of work, one that seems to speak particularly strongly to teenagers, and this is definitely the case with Jam and her fellow students as they explore the novel in the exclusive Special Topics in English course at The Wooden Barn.
Jam finds herself in the course along with an African-American dancer, a blond-surfer-type farm boy, a debate team captain and an All-American girl from a privileged background that has recently become wheelchair-bound. Each kid, like Jam, has had a recent traumatic experience. The group interactions are my favorite part of the book, I think Wolitzer’s writing really shines when she’s exploring and exposing the complicated, messy nature of relationships, whether romantic or not. Jam and her classmates discover that their required journal writing takes them to a therapeutic place they name Belzhar, where they are able to experience their lives as they were before their individual tragedies. But what happens when the pages of the journal run out?
I initially found it difficult to understand Jam. She had only known Reeve for a short period of time, and the depth of her despair seemed a bit melodramatic at times. But believe me when I say that it all makes sense in the end, thanks to a plot twist that is shocking but also extremely enlightening.
Wolitzer is a great storyteller, and she writes about teenagers with deep understanding and empathy, as anyone who read her amazing novel, The Interestings, can attest. But Belzhar is also a testament to the transformative, sometimes life-saving power inherent in reading and writing. I have to say this wasn’t my favorite Wolitzer work, I liked her middle-grade book, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, better, but Belzhar is definitely worth a read.