Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
Published 2014 by Dutton Books for Young Readers
Disclaimer: includes graphic sexual content and drug use. If you’re a young reader, please check with your parents before reading!
Belzhar tells the story of fifteen-year-old Jam Gallahue. Jam is sent away to The Wooden Barn, a “boarding school for emotionally fragile, highly intelligent teenagers” (1). Jam explains she is being sent to The Wooden Barn because of a boy, Reeve Maxfield, who Jam loves. However, Reeve has died (we have no idea how) and Jam has intensely mourned him for over a year, which deeply concerns her parents. Though Jam and Reeve only knew each other for forty-one-days, Jam believes Reeve was her “soul mate,” and is frustrated that her family and friends belittle her grief in their reminders that it was a short romance, and she is so young (as my mom has always said, it may be puppy love, but it’s love to the puppy).
Shortly upon arriving at The Wooden Barn, Jam is mysteriously placed in the highly elite class Special Topics in English. DJ, Jam’s roommate, best explains the class, so I’ll let her speak:
“First of all, this is a legendary class. The person who teaches it, Mrs. Quenell, only teaches it went she wants to . . . it’s the smallest, most elite class in the entire school . . . During the semester, everyone in the class acts likes it’s no big deal. But when it’s over, they say things about how it changed their lives” (14-15).
Thanks DJ. As is foretold by DJ, being in this class does indeed change Jam and her classmates’ lives. Although, the change comes from the magical experience that takes place when they write in their journals (that’s all I say), rather than their reading of Sylvia Plath (Mrs. Quenell focuses on one writer per semester). This is my main complaint of the novel. The actual class is briefly described, and Wolitzer tells instead of shows how the actual materials of the English Class were valuable. I hope some readers will be curious to check out Plath after reading the book, but the relationship between Plath’s works and the characters’ experiences could have been utilized better.
Honestly, I was skeptical when beginning this novel. It seemed hugely melodramatic, and it was hard not to side with Jam’s friends and family when they question her over-the-top response to losing Reeve. Yes, experiencing the death of a friend at fifteen is a difficult circumstance. It was Jam’s constant portrayal of her and Reeve having the most incredible love story that no one else understood because no one could have ever possibly felt this way before; basically the often portrayed stereotypical teenagers’ response to their first love. Yet, as I discovered, this is part of Wolitzer’s plan. She wants us to question Jam’s melodrama, and this results in the last thirty-pages being so shocking and fascinating that it makes reading the novel rewarding. So if you, like me, initially find Jam’s grief a little over the top, hang on, it pays off!
Despite being irritated by Jam for the majority of the novel, it is a page-turner! I zoomed through it in two days, and kept shushing my husband to be quite during the last thirty pages when my mind was being blown. Wolitzer is a wonderful writer, and creates a complex and intriguing narrative. I highly recommend the novel, and am confident that you too will enjoy your time spent in Belzhar.