I wanted to read Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar (IndieBound) the second it came out, even though I only felt so-so about the other book of hers I had read, The Uncoupling (IB). But even though I was super excited, I only finally got around to picking it up at work this week when a colleague returned it and I remembered that I had been dying to read it. I am mostly really glad I did, especially because my curiosity about the book was only increased when I saw how divisive reviews seem to be. Everyone is either amazed by the book or angered by it, it seems. I had to know why. Now I’ve read the book, and I can’t say that I get why everyone who didn’t like it is so angry, but that’s reading for you – we all react differently. (I will employ the slightest of spoilers in this post, because I don’t really care about spoilers, as they don’t tend to spoil things for me.)
I don’t want to write a synopsis, so here’s the publisher’s:
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.
I kind of get it. Like, here’s the bad: Wolitzer writes for adults. She’s very famous and presumably has lots of money. Her name is recognized by people. So while I can’t confirm whether it was her idea or her publisher’s, either way the promotional momentum and drive to publish a YA was probably driven at least in part by the YA-is-trendy-and-I’m-a-writer-so-why-not zeitgest that other writers for adults have followed, not always to much success or quality (coughElizabethGeorgecough). While I do think that overall, Belzhar is a good book worth reading (it even gave me some feels, and in a more human person might prompt tears, but I am a stoic thing unless watching something produced by Shonda Rhimes), there were moments and plot elements that definitely read as “I’m writing a YA book and even though I’ve never read one (why would I? ha!), I think all teens like X element and totally identify with Z cliche, so I’ll assume they’re kind of dumb and do that.” That would be things like the weird letters from Jam’s mom, who otherwise was an empty, worthless character who may as well have not appeared at all (Jam’s entire family, actually, was only relevant in the final third of the book, which felt weird).
Wolitzer is clearly someone who loves literature and its power to wreak magic, depression, or madness on us all (The Uncoupling was a magical realism take on Lysistrata). That’s awesome. And while sometimes Jam and her classmates’ reactions to Sylvia Plath’s work are so juvenile, so obvious, I could let it slide, because I remember being a teenager and thinking that The Great Gatsby, like, totally spoke to me. And now I know better. (And I have my original, junior year of high school annotated copy of that novel to prove that I was full of shit when I read it.) My problem with this conceit, though, is that naming the magical in-between place that Jam and her classmates go “Belzhar” implies a lot of connection and meaning to The Bell Jar, and if you really wanted to talk about a piece of literature that says exactly what is wrong with all of the kids in this Special Topics class, a magical place called “Magurluvzong” would be more accurate. They scarcely talk about The Bell Jar at all. They talk about Plath’s personal life. Jam mentions her pregnancy poem. There’s really not much about Plath’s novel. So I’m a little peeved by the in-your-face Making Teenagers See Relevance in the Classics piece when the author herself couldn’t even find a lot of relevance aside from a fun riff on a name.
That said, HOLY SHIT DID THIS GIRL’S STRUGGLE BRING UP SOME VERY PERSONAL SHIT FOR ME.
I’m surprised that I actually didn’t see the twist coming, because I should have. But I didn’t, so points to Meg Wolitzer! There is some deep, painful stuff here about self-perception and mental illness and depression and perception of reality that is well done. Learning what really happened to Reeve when Jam sets out on her final trip to Belzhar really hurts. That is a skill Wolitzer has – with the lightest, easiest of writing that makes it so simple to turn pages, she all of a sudden punches you in the gut.
There is also some tediously obvious shit that represents Wolitzer’s lapse in memory that she was supposed to be writing a book to be read by people, not Writing A Dumb Teenage Book for Dumb Teenagers. That said, she really had a much better memory to that effect than a lot of other writers. I just thought that Mrs. Q having such a Meaningfully Tying It All Together explanation for the journals was a bit much and a lot unnecessary.
Still, for the girls who were neither cool nor uncool in high school, treated badly but not always nice either, awkward but well meaning, gullible but self-aware, Jam is a heroine they will recognize – even if her diagnosis (not ever given in the book, but a reader can probably give her one) isn’t one they share.