Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
Meg Wolitzer is best known for her quirky feminist novels about gender politics. I admit I’ve not read any of them, although the comedy aspects of her novel The Position appeal, in which a couple’s children discover that their parents are the creators of a sex manual featuring themselves, this event having ramifications that last through the ensuing decades.
This autumn she has published her first novel for a teenaged audience and it has the potential to have some crossover appeal. More on that below, although my title of this post does give it away.
Belzhar is narrated by a teenager known as Jam, who is having mental health problems. It begins…
I was sent here because of a boy. His name was Reeve Maxfield, and I loved him and then he died, and almost a year passed and no one knew what to do with me. Finally it was decided that the best thing would be to send me here. But if you ask anyone on the staff or faculty, they’ll insist I was sent here because of “the lingering effects of trauma.” Those are the words that my parents wrote on the application to get me into The Wooden Barn, which is described in the brochure as a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teenagers.
Jam knew Reeve for precisely forty-one days. He was a tenth-grade exchange student from London, spending a term at Jam’s school in New Jersey. He was very different to all the American boys, Jam describes him as looking “like a member of one of those British punk bands from the eighties that my dad still loves…” Jam fell for him hard and it seems he really liked her too, but we don’t find out until much later in the novel what happened between them and how he died.
The Wooden Barn is set deep in Vermont. It’s a really supportive community, a small school full of teenagers that need help to get their lives back to normal; no cell phones, no social media, the students are given time and space to heal. Jam is assigned to share a room with DJ, who has eating issues and squirrels away food to binge on when stressed. The two girls seem to get on together, but DJ is a bit jealous that Jam, a newbie, has been picked to take the ‘Special Topics in English’ course.
In fact, it will be last time that Mrs. Quenell teaches this course, for she is retiring. Each term she selects just five students, from across the years. The course focuses on a single writer – a different one each time – and this final time, she has picked Sylvia Plath. She hands out copies of The Bell Jar, and despite feeling stunned, the five are almost itching to read it and to see how Plath’s autobiographical novel resounds with their own experiences.
The other thing Mrs Q. does is to give each student a journal – red leather-bound, old, well-made writing books:
“Once the spirit moves you,” says Mrs. Quenell, “you will write in the journal twice a week. And you will all hand your journals back to me at the end of the semester. I won’t read them, I never do, but I will collect them, and keep them. Like the writing itself, this is a requirement.” (p33)
The five will find that writing in their journals will transport them to a world they will call Belzhar, where they don’t have to be sad any more.
Jam, Sierra, Marc, Griffin and Casey, will become very close friends over the next weeks. All will get the chance to tell their own stories of how they ended up at The Wooden Barn. It won’t be easy, there will be obstacles to overcome but, as you can imagine, it will make them stronger and able to accept themselves again.
Belzhar is aimed primarily at a YA audience, particularly those who enjoy John Green’s novels (another YA author I haven’t read yet), and Megan Abbott’s later novels for older teens. However, the inclusion of The Bell Jar as a catalyst and the obvious comparisons between Mrs Q. and John Keating (Robin Williams, R.I.P.) in Dead Poet’s Society may interest other readers.
The Wooden Barn seems too good to be true. Of course, we only read about it through Jam’s eyes, so we get no real idea about the rest of the school or any real therapies to help its ‘fragile, highly intelligent’ pupils. Do such schools really exist? Mrs Q is well aware of the effects that her class and the journal writing have; she would have been fired long ago had the secrecy not been maintained. A certain amount of disbelief has to be suspended.
The book also tried rather too hard to be inclusive, one diversionary sub-plot felt rather shoe-horned in. There is no sex, bar a little teenage groping and occasional swearing – even though Jam is only fifteen it felt too safe at times.
I rattled through this novel, just about finishing it on a return train journey to and from London. My first reaction to it though was to pull The Bell Jar off my shelves the minute I got home to finally read this modern classic – which I did, and I’ve just started, (I’ve ordered a DVD of Dead Poet’s Society too). Both of these are good things and should be encouraged – whether you need to read Belzhar too is up for debate… (6/10)
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Source: Publisher. Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer, pub 9th October by Simon & Schuster, UK paperback original, 272 pages.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Dead Poets Society [DVD]