Belzhar – Meg Wolitzer
The minute I read Jamie’s review of this, I knew I had to have it, so seeing it listed on netgalley felt a little serendipitous. I mentioned in my ten influential books tag that the Bell Jar is a novel that means a lot to me, so I was interested to see how it was going to be referenced and used as a plot point in this book and if lead character, Jam, would find it as relatable as I did. Turns out, the Bell Jar and Belzhar aren’t really all that alike at all, which was a bit of a disappointment for me.
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.
This book reminded me a little of the Dead Poet’s Society, especially with the unconventional English lessons and the way that literature and particularly the work of Sylvia Plath had such a profound effect on the Special Topics class. I love words and I adored studying books at school, I am also a writer, so words are my kind of my favourite thing, so the premise of this book filled me with an excited tingly feeling. All the reviews I’ve seen of this so far, made lots of mention of the Bell Jar which was, as I said, the reason I wanted it so much and I think this is where most of my criticism is going to come from.
This is a bit peculiar. Its set in a school for kids fighting metaphorical demons and so I was expecting it to be a modern take on the Bell Jar where Jam is feeling a little lost inside of herself and special English helps her feel more content at life, but it became a little paranormal, and while I love a good paranormal story, when something paranormal appears in a story where there is no paranormal world building and no explanation of the paranormal activity, I find it hard to take to. I found this when reading the Book of Tomorrow by Cecelia Aherne, that too featured a seemingly magical book with no explanation. The unexplained supernatural moment was just a little unsatisfactory, there was no lore or backstory, there was no mention of magic or anything like that and I just can’t get my head around it. I still don’t know if the trances were supposed to be real or a figment of the kid’s imagination. Some may say that this is the sign of a genius bit of story telling when you’re left questioning what was real, but I wasn’t questioning, I was just confused. I don’t have a problem with there being a paranormal element, but I can’t take to it if it doesn’t feel like it should be there. To me, this didn’t feel like it was completely necessary.
That doesn’t mean that this is a bad book by any stretch, the characters are well constructed and their pain is easily felt by the reader and like I said, there is a Dead Poet’s Society vibe to it, which is great if you too have ever been deeply affected by a book. Seriously, raise your hand if you’ve ever been personally victimised by the Bell Jar…
Just me? Ok then.
I’ve not read any of Meg Wolitzer’s other books before and I’m told by goodreads that this is her first foray into YA. Well, she didn’t do too badly, the story flows nicely, Reeve seems to look a bit like Harry Styles which nice for me, each character has an interesting life story and the subjects of both mental wellness and literature being a support were fascinating.
My only real criticisms were the paranormal thing that isn’t explained or made to feel like its a natural part of the story and the rest come from my absolute adoration of the Bell Jar and my expectation that Belzhar would be really similar. There is also the problem that the reason that Jam is in the Wooden Barn stems from a 26 day relationship with someone she has only known for 41 days. That’s how it is written, in days. It doesn’t look long enough, saying ‘nearly a year’ or ‘x amount of months’ would have made me a bit less critical. Obviously, I’m not judging people on the severity of their pain or anything but marking it in days makes it sound a bit like instalove. Also her big reveal made me a bit angry, I hate myself for it, but really? Really? The rest of the characters have actual real problems and it was like Jam’s story was trivilised and by making her truth what it was, sort of ruined her characterisation for me.
So… Anyway, this book is interesting, it isn’t a bad book, but it is not the Bell Jar, it is nothing like the Bell Jar, the Bell Jar is a passing glance in this book.
I feel like if I say anymore, none of you will want to read this and it isn’t in anyway terrible, so I am going to stop.