This is a book review, and is also my own website, so I’m going to have major plot spoilers. If that bothers you, read the book and come back later or suck it up.
Last summer I read “The Interestings” by Meg Wolitzer and I loved it. It’s a decades-spanning story of a group of friends who meet at summer camp, and it’s a pretty terrific look at how our lives and our friendships change and influence us over the years. I had “Belzhar” on my list of books to read, and when I found myself in a moment without anything to read, I made my way to my Overdrive Wish List and found it waiting for me.
The premise is this – our main character Jam is suffering from deep depression over the death of her boyfriend, despite the fact that they dated for only 41 days. It’s nearly a year past when this happened, and she’s still in a deep darkness, so her parents send her off to a boarding school in Vermont called “The Wooden Barn” which is a school for troubled teenagers of all kinds (as an example, Jam’s new roommate DJ suffers from an eating disorder). Jam gets chosen to participate in a select English class called “Special Topics in English”. The classmates are all strangers, and their teacher Mrs. Quennell tells them they’ll be reading the works of Sylvia Plath, and keeping a journal throughout the semester.
Well, it turns out that these are “magic” journals (though we don’t know a whole lot about how or why). Each time that the writer begins an entry, they are taken back to the time before their trauma – a simpler time. Sierra is in the time before her younger brother was kidnapped. Casey lives the time before her mother drunkenly crashed their car in an accident that left her paralyzed. Marc is with a happy family in the time before he discovered his father’s blatant cheating and which was the impetus for his parents divorce. Griffin is in the time before he got high in his parents goat barn and forgot he’d left a lit joint behind in the hay, burning down the barn and killing all the goats inside. Jam is with Reeve – the English exchange student she loved for just over a month before he died. The students decide to support each other by secretly discussing what they experience in the journal world – the world they call Belzhar in public and private (“sort of like Bell Jar, but more foreign” is the actual reasoning for calling it this). All five begin to come to terms with their personal tragedies
Obviously there’s got to be some kind of big reveal at the end about the circumstances of Reeve’s death. Was it Jam’s fault? Was it tragic? Was she there? What happened? We get nearly all the way through the book before we discover that not only did Jam exaggerate her relationship with Reeve, it turns out she caught him kissing her grade school rival and had some sort of dis-associative break where she decided it would be easier to decide that Reeve was dead than to confront the fact that she made too much of their little time together.
And that’s where the book and Jam as main character are hard to handle. If there had been some bigger tragedy with an actual death, you may have felt like Jam’s reluctance to talk about her personal experiences with the Special Topics kids as acceptable. But no – she has a hard time talking about what happened because if she tells everyone what happened as she believes it, she’s lying. And if she tells them them about what actually happened with Reeve, then suddenly she’s the kind of girl who makes a big thing out of something that’s merely embarrassing.
The scale of the tragedies that each of them face is different. Burning down a barn and being responsible for animal deaths is obviously horrific, but is it on the same scale as being the last one to see your brother before he disappeared forever? Is being the impetus for your parents divorce on the same level as being paralyzed forever by your mother’s irresponsible behavior? And how low down on the scale does a dis-associative break fall when there was no real tragedy involved other than a broken heart? Obviously each of these tragedies is the worst thing that happened to each of these kids. It’s why they are at the Wooden Barn, and why they were chosen for the class. But I have a hard time believing that the other students would be so generous with Jam when she reveals exactly what happened. And maybe that’s why she’s so reluctant to share her exact story until the very end of the book.
I rated this book as a 4 stars on Goodreads, but that should really have been 3.5, and I was feeling generous, so I rounded up. Watching the emotional journeys that the other four Special Topics kids take is more engaging than that of our main character, so while I liked the book at the time I was reading it, it’s hard to be as magnanimous in hindsight. It’s not a bad book, but it’s not really a good book either. Which is so disappointing from Meg Wolitzer, since I had such high expectations. I suppose the lesson here is that not every good author always produces good books.
Details: “Belzhar” by Meg Wolitzer, published 2014 by Dutton Books for Young Readers .