Review: Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

From Goodreads:

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 20821376rural 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.

Meg Wolitzer’s young adult novel Belzhar has been poised at the top of my TBR pile since its release this time last year. But I hesitated. The summary is vague, I’m not that into Sylvia Plath (though since reading this book I might be). And, I have a hard time buying hardcover books—the paperback version isn’t out yet—because my name isn’t Colette MoneyBags Whitney. Let’s face it, hardcover books require the blood of your best friend’s first born. And I’m not into that. Also, my best friend doesn’t have any kids.

But then someone bought it for me. So no innocent blood needed. 

When I finished the book, my first thought was that it really reminded me of We Were Liars. You know how that book is told out of order and is pretty twisted and suspenseful? Well, Belzhar is basically We Were Liars minus the really twisted aspects, plus excellent characterization and a better story overall (imho).

The premise is that this girl, Jam, gets sent to a school for grieving teens because her boyfriend died and she doesn’t know how to deal. So she goes to this school, gets placed in a special English class for which she and her classmates have to write in  journals. It’s just that those journals aren’t normal; they transport the teenagers to an alternate reality, one in which their individual tragedies cease to exist. But when the glory of the journals transforms into something dark and strange, they’re each confronted with a choice.

I like this book for a lot of reasons. I think it’s an original story with ties to reality and to the past, which always makes a story richer and gives it permanence. I like how Wolitzer interweaves a fantastical idea—that of an alternate reality—with the cold, devastating truths of mortality and betrayal. In that way, an overdone story (dead boyfriend, divorced parents, etc.) becomes new and fresh and alive. It’s cool, it’s like a contemporary fantasy/reality fiction hybrid (again, there is probably a word for this and I need someone to please tell me).

I also think Wolitzer must have had a great time writing it. Some of the best books, the books that break your heart and stay with you, are those that begin or culminate in some kind of tragedy. Think Harry Potter, Graceling, any John Green book, The Boy Next Door, etc. And in Belzhar, Wolitzer gets to write a different, crashing tragedy for each character. That must be thrilling when you get it right, when you really nail a sad story and you know it’s going to get genuine reactions out of people. That has to be a great feeling.

Anyways, I really enjoyed reading Belzhar. I think it was thoughtful and respectful of the trauma that some teenagers unfortunately experience. There’s a weird thing that sometimes happens when teenagers get emotional or get sad or get depressed. Adults tend to disregard it, or try to minimize their suffering, which is totally not fair because when you’re a teenager, the smallest bad thing can be devastating and that’s okay. I think you’re allowed to be a little irrational at that age and I don’t think that occasional irrationality gives anyone the right to make light of truly, inarguably tragic things when they inevitably do happen.

I think Wolitzer understands that and through Belzhar, starts a new dialogue about how teenagers move through suffering. And how they make it out.

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