"To find out what a story's really about,' the Librarian said,

'you don't ask the writer. You ask the reader."

- SNOW & ROSE by Emily Winfield Martin

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Review: BELZHAR by Meg Wolitzer (YA)

by Meg Wolitzer
Release day: September 30th, 2014
Published by: Dutton Juvenile (Penguin)
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary/Paranormal
Format: Hardcover, eBook
Format read: ARC 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.

From New York Times bestselling author Meg Wolitzer comes a breathtaking and surprising story about first love, deep sorrow, and the power of acceptance.


"Everyone," she continues, looking around at all of us, 
"has something to say. But not everyone can bear to say it. 
Your job is to find it." ~ p. 34

"To find out what another human being feels, 
a person who isn't you; to get a look under the hood, so to speak. 
A deep look inside. That's what writing is suppose to do." ~ p.161

"Books light the fire - 
whether it's a book that's already written, or an empty journal that needs to be filled in." ~ p. 250


I have never had such a hard time trying to decide whether or not I liked a book. If I look at this story in one way - I want to shout out to people how brilliant it is and spoil everyone by telling them about the part that made me gasp and throw the book across the room (don't worry, no damages were made!). And then when I turn around and look at the book the other way - I want to throw the book down, stomp on it and just say no, no, no!... I am still undecided. And I'm going to attempt to tell you why, which will be difficult because I have chosen to remain spoiler free.

Our main character, Jam, has suffered a tragic loss. Her boyfriend Reeve is dead. After having only known him for less than 2 months, and dated him half that time, Jam's grieving seems a bit overboard to me. But, who am I to judge. I have lost a few distant relations and friends, and they touched me very deeply and I cannot imagine losing someone that close to me, but the feelings that she had just seemed a bit off to me... I had sympathy for Jam. But in all honesty, I felt like she was burying herself in sorrow on purpose. Trying to hide from something, perhaps...
After a year has gone by and Jam shows no intentions of moving on, her parents decide to send her to The Wooden Barn - a therapeutic boarding school in Vermont. She is then forced to live with an interesting and nosey roommate, and she must attend all of her classes. Soon enough, the most sought after English class roster has been released and Jam finds herself in a classroom with four other students. No one knows why they were chosen for this elite class, and no one knows why it's so popular and also, so secretive and inclusive. And we all get a front row seat to see what "Special Topics English" is all about... Jam soon realizes that this class is more than just studying Sylvia Plath's works and writing in their new red journals. These journals offer a way to revisit their tragedies in a tranquil way in order to help them get over their loss - a place that they've decided to nickname BELZHAR.
Because no one knows how BELZHAR works, this little group soon becomes close confidants and swear to watch out and support each other. Little by little they start to share what has happened to them, and each time, Jam holds back afraid to share her story. I got the feeling that she wasn't just afraid to fall into her deep sadness again and not be able to climb back out. But she was also afraid of what the others would think of her. And that was confusing for me. Any type of loss cannot compare to another person's undoing. I couldn't decide if Jam was dismissing her own feelings because her loss wasn't as huge an impact as the others, or if the other person's tragedy was up to par with hers.

I have to admit. What kept me reading were the other four supporting characters - Casey, Marc, Sierra, and Griffin. I was completely intrigued with their stories and character development. While Jam was stagnant, the others were growing and accepting. It felt like Jam kept going around in circles and contradicting herself. She was supportive of the group facing their fears, healing and doing what they had to do to accept their lives in order to move on. And even though Jam was starting to create a life for herself at the school, participating in activities and taking an interest in the others, when it came to her own issues, she kept backtracking and daydreaming about Reeve and visiting BELZHAR. Even after she noticed that the things that were happening in BELZHAR weren't right and could never improve or be more than what it currently is. She was still determined to find a way to go back and be with Reeve even if it was unrealistic way to live.

Because of my conflicts with this story, it just goes to prove that Meg Wolitzer is a brilliant writer. I believe that with this book being a homage to Sylvia Plath, the book aims to bring awareness to mental illness and that things are hardly ever what we think they are. Some things are more complicated and hard to explain and understand. And I have to admit, I had a very hard understanding Jam's story and how easily things seem to tie up in the end.
We are told not to judge people, but we are only human and cannot help ourselves. We are taught to categorize things, and that is what happens. In my heart I know that Jam did not intentionally do the things she did just for attention, and that she was truly a broken-hearted girl. Who is to decide whether or not Jam's breakdown was legitimate or not? Especially without knowing the entire story.

If you have read BELZHAR and wish to discuss or debate, please let me know! I have yet to discuss this book with anyone who has read it, and I am very interested in knowing if anyone feels as conflicted and emotionally drained as I do.

I have not read any of Meg Wolitzer's other books, all from the adult genre. But I am in dire need to fix this soon. Her writing style and character development has captured me and I am curious to see what adult issues she has entwined into her stories. I'm also looking forward to seeing more YA books from her too! Cannot wait to hear about what she's working on now/next...

*An ARC was sent to me from the publisher for an honest review. All thoughts are my own.


Author photo copyright Deborah Copaken.

1 comment:

  1. The fact that you're so conflicted makes me want to read it. Will let you know when I do.


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