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] 
16 thoughts on “A novel of fragile youth and Sylvia Plath…”
I’m quite a fan of Wolitzer’s adult novels. I think you’d like them, Annabel. I enjoyed The Position and also last year’s The Interestings.
I get the feeling that I’d enjoy them too. This YA experiment was not quite there for me though.
This sounds so intriguing, I’m really tempted. But first, ‘The Bell Jar’…
The Bell Jar is totally worth it if you haven’t read it – I finished it this morning!
Soon, very soon I hope!
I think I would go straight for The Bell Jar, bypassing this one – it’s been *years* since I read it!
I’ve read both now – post tomorrow on TBJ.
I love ‘The Bell Jar’ and I’m also a fan of allowing children/teens the time and space to write privately in class. I always did it with my year 6s much to the bafflement of my colleagues who used to say ‘but how do you mark them?’ !!!!
There’s more to these ‘special’ journals in this novel than I was letting on in the post above Alex – there’s a hint of the paranormal which gives the book its edge and that’s all I’m saying!
I’ve really enjoyed the Meg Wolitzer novels I’ve read, but this sounds like a near-miss. I have to confess that I haven’t read The Bell Jar, though! I really should – I’m a huge Plath fan generally.
I’m amazed you haven’t read the Bell Jar!
I’m sure I could produce a whole list of books you’d be amazed I haven’t read! 🙂
I’m embarrassed to admit that I only just today figured out that the title is in reference to The Bell Jar. I even knew it was a book about reading Sylvia Plath! But it took someone saying the title out loud to me for me to get it. Derp derp derp.
I had no idea either, so decided not to explain in my review, but looking at it, it is a little obvious – ish!!