Author: Meg Wolitzer
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Genre: Young Adult, Fiction
Characters: Jam Gallahue, Griffin, Marc, Sierra, Casey, …
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.
Yes, as you can see from the title of this post, I purchased this book 4 years ago and only felt like picking it up couple of days ago. This review would be full of spoilers, so don’t say I didn’t warn you!
The premise sounds great from the synopsis of the book. However, the execution was poor. Belzhar is about 5 teenagers who went through some personal issues, including mental illness, suicidal thoughts and lost of their loved one. They bond over a special class in their new school for teens who are also having the same issues like them. So, in this class, they study the book The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and dissect the writing and the content of the book. They are also given a red journal where every time they write something in it, they’d be transported to a different realm. Hence, we can see The Bell Jar on the cover of the book as well as the title rhymes with Bell Jar (Belzhar, the other realm).
Why I say the execution is poor? The synopsis suggests this book to be magical realism but the whole story is just not quite there for me. The whole system of them being transported to the other realm may seem solid and believable at first but then that explanation towards the end though was simply disappointing. Besides, there were lots of plot holes and weak explanation especially towards the ending. There were parts of the story that are kind of choppy and change too abruptly. For instance, Chapter 4 going into Chapter 5 was kinda too sudden, it’d be good if there’s another chapter in between or a page or two to fill up things in between the 2 chapters so that the story flows more smoothly.
This book is also not quite plot driven nor it’s fully character driven. The story is not moving much, it’s more about the characters sharing their stories bringing the readers to the past and present of what these teens have been through in their life and what they experience in Belzhar and how all of that makes sense.
Nonetheless, I do love how Wolitzer explains about Belzhar, how each one of them can’t go over to another person’s Belzhar because then the worlds will get mixed up and doesn’t make sense to them. There’s also this specific rules, for each visit, they would somehow fill up 5 pages of their journal subconsciously and this one journal will last them one whole semester if they visit Belzhar twice a week. That’s some sort of system they figure out and decide to go with.
After all these amazing details, I was taken aback with the poor explanation about the journals at the end. Their teacher, who I assumed to be someone who knows magic apparently is just another normal person who had been through depression and knew Sylvia Plath during her stay in an institution. Then, again I thought, okay fine but these red journals gotta have something to do with Sylvia Plath then, but nope, they are just random red journals that were bought from an old antique store and somehow they are magical and only work for certain teenagers. I was expecting something more, like the entries in the journals would magically disappear so that the next 5 future students of this special class could use again, because their teacher wants them to hand in the journal at the end of the semester but that’s not the case, she just collects them and not read them, I have no idea for what really. What’s the purpose? I’m questioning a lot of plot points and the overall story as more weak explanations being made.
There is also a really good plot twist on Jam but again I’m disappointed because it is dismissed so easily instead being confronted and dealt with. Maybe Wolitzer wants to convey the message of acceptance but well, the protagonist has serious delusional problem and obsessive behaviour and her new boyfriend, Griffin is simply okay with it? It is such a good twist but boy, like don’t you want to help her? It’d be so interesting if all this while, Jam is making up all her new friends in her new school and this Belzhar thingy doesn’t exist and she’s actually in a mental institution, oohh, I think that’d be a cool mystery thriller story. But again, that wouldn’t make a good YA story that features mental illness, I guess.
Overall, I did enjoy my time reading this book and to review it 4 years later, I believe the 4 years ago me wouldn’t look at this book the way I do now. Belzhar is also good that it could be made as a quick read and highlights on depression, suicidal thoughts, mental illness, coping with loss and friendship. But will I read it again? Maybe no.