ARC Review: Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer


title:  Belzhar

author:  Meg Wolitzer

pages: 608

format: Paperback

isbn/asin: 978-1481422345

buy it: Amazon  Goodreads  B&N

rating: 3.5/5 [in the genre] or 6.5/10 [all books I’ve ever read].

recommended for:  People who enjoyed Anatomy of a Misfit by Andrea Porter, The Breakfast Club, or boarding schools.  

will i read this author again?:  Yes.  
will i continue the series?:  N/A 
My Ratings Explained

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.

From New York Times bestselling author Meg Wolitzer comes a breathtaking and surprising story about first love, deep sorrow, and the power of acceptance.

the basics
I found that I loved this book less than I had expected; then by the end, I appreciated it more than I had been.  It's a divisive book.  I loved the twist and found it absolutely believable in the context of mental health.  But I know that same twist will make it difficult for some readers to empathize with Jam.  In my mind, Jam was very relatable.  She's an extreme, but an extreme of something that we've all felt.  Really, I thought the plot was well paced and clever.  The characters and writing disappointed me.  The writing was simplistic and often overly straightforward or overly repetitive.  The side characters didn't have distinguishable voices and, for the most part, received very little substantive attention.  It was like The Breakfast Club without the deep connections I felt to those characters.  In Belzhar, I felt like Jam was real and the others were sort of types.  So for most of the book, I found my interest flagging.  Then the twist happened, and I appreciated everything so much more.  But it's unfortunate that the specialness of the book hinges on the twist, because it was relatively average until then.  Still, if you enjoy boarding school reads, it's a quick and enjoyable book.  

plot . 5/5
In general, the plot is fairly interested.  We know that Jam's boyfriend has died.  We know that Jam and Reeve had only a forty-one day relationship.  We know that Jam has been sent off to a school for emotionally damaged teenagers.  It's a compelling plot, especially if you're obsessed with the boarding school dramas like I am.  Enter Special Topics in English, an invite-only class that turns out to be more supernatural than academic.  The story did a great job of alternating between Jam's trips to see Reeve in Belzhar and her real-world encounters with other students.  As the story goes on, you see Jam struggle between embracing the fantasy world and finding happiness in the real world.  This includes the obligatory but adorable budding romance between Jam and an unlikely soul.  It's a plot of self-discovery, a Breakfast Club-esque drama manifest in heart-to-hearts and unfulfilled wishes.  The struggles of Jam's classmates become as compelling as Jam's, and manage to complement each other. (Yes, the tragedies are objectively uneven, but let's not play a game of Whose Problems Are Bad Enough to Deserve Compassion, yeah?)  The Big Reveal of Reeve's death was pretty explosive--in a good way, I thought.  It was absolutely unique and gave the story an entirely new dimension.  I was captivated.               

concept . 5/5
I'll admit something horrendous: I've never read The Bell Jar.  I've been about five pages in for the last year, and other things keep insinuating themselves between us.  However, I'm quite familiar with Plath, and Wolitzer gives you enough context that you don't need to have read it.  That said, it's a great background for a class in a school for mentally troubled teenagers.  They can all relate to Plath's loneliness and anguish.  Not to mention, a bell jar is itself an encapsulated space, much like the fantasy land of Belzhar to which the students travel when they journal.  It's a place of the mind, where they can relive the happy events before their tragedies.  But it's not forever.  The supernatural element adds a twist to the familiar story of teenagers coming to terms with the tragedies of their past and seeking out a better future.  

characters . 3/5
The characters in Belzhar were good starts, but for me, they were missing just a smidge of vibrancy.  Jam herself had her moments; she was insightful, sometimes compassionate despite her self-absorption, and creative.  But sometimes she felt a little too much like the stereotypical emo kid.  Casey, Marc, Griffin, and Sierra varied in their presentation.  Sierra was quickly declared Jam's best friend, but her ferocity and personality didn't come through clearly until the second half.  Marc and Casey were clearly secondary and had a typecast feel.  Griffin was probably the one I connected with most, because he gets a lot of page time and he clearly evolves over the book.  Then there was Ms. Quennell, their professor.  She's enigmatic but it works for her; she's meant to be.  And I could easily imagine loving her.  There are also some great side characters, like Jam's roommate D.J.   I just wanted more substance.  

style . 3/5
A lot of readers have said how much they love Wolitzer's writing.  I actually found it a little blah.  Not bad, but not as punchy or poetic as I'd expect for a book based on The Bell Jar.  True, it's in Jam's perspective, and she's only a teenager.  But I didn't expect something fancy, just something more uniquely Jam.  I can't really express what's missing; there's just a thinness to some of the writing.  Like it could be any teenager.  Like Jam's voice doesn't differ much from the dialogue of her classmates.   

mechanics . 4/5
The big device here is the secret.  You know from the outset that Jam dated Reeve and that Reeve died, but you don't know how.  What exactly happened.  What was the aftermath.  Problematically, the lack of the reveal early on made Jam and Reeve's relationship feel somewhat shallow.  However, the twist was such a great AHA! moment that I'm not sure how else Wolitzer could have done it.  

take home message
A unique story of teenagers struggling through love and loss, with a supernatural backdrop that allows Wolitzer to explore the temptations of fantasy and the thorniness of reality.  

Note: I received this copy in exchange for a review.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.

You have reached the end of the spoiler-free section.  The following contains spoilers.  You have been warned. 

the big reveal
I can't review this book thoroughly without mentioning this, because it was, by far, the most divisive issue in the book.  The whole time, you're waiting for Jam to talk about the big issue: how Reeve died.  Then, in a moment of psychic clarity, it all comes crashing through: how Reeve never loved her.  How their relationship was a fabrication of Jam's fragile mind, moments given delusional importance and misunderstood interactions.  How the realization that Reeve didn't love her sent Jam into a depressive spiral so painful that she convinced herself that he was dead, rather than accept it.  

This has led many readers to conclude the following:  Jam is petty.  That's so unrealistic, no one gets depressed over a 41 day long non-relationship.  Get over yourself, girl; other people have real tragedies!  

As someone who's struggled with depression, I can't really say I'm surprised, but nor can I easily express how insulting that is.  Mental illness doesn't conform to the bounds of reason or reality.  Yes, some people get depressed because something terrible happens to them; other people just get depressed.  Go check out Hyperbole and a Half on this topic, because she perfectly describes the guilt that depressed people feel.  Aka, "I'm depressed but I don't deserve to be because my life is okay, therefore I hate myself more because I'm depressed before reason, therefore I'm now more depressed."  Newsflash, it sucks.  And the response you get from other people ranges from "But nothing bad happened to you, right?" to "Just try to be happy. You're not trying hard enough" and all you can do is smile and nod when inside you just want to throw yourself into a wood chipper.  

So, yes, losing your legs like Casey is more objectively tragic, but becoming depressed is also pretty freaking bad and not something you can just pull yourself out of, kthxbye.  

Now, to the other part.  Jam's delusion of love with Reeve.  "But she's so stupid, she's petty, she should just get over it."  One, we've established that some people become depressed about things that other people think are silly or small.  Now, here's another shocker: some people with mental illness operate under very strong, debilitating delusions.  Maybe you've heard of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (yes, some people with bipolar disorder have delusions).  Where people are convinced that the CIA is after them, so they refuse to leave their house.   Or maybe you've heard of John Hinckley, who shot Ronald Reagan because he believed that it would convince actress Jodi Foster to love him.  True story.  

Guess what?  Not all the examples are as extreme as that.  For certain emotionally unstable people, it's easy to create a fantasy world that feels as real to them as reality does to the average person.  Think of stalkers, some of whom are so convinced that the person they stalk loves them that they'll kill for it.  It's a kind of erotomania.  Check out the psychological perspective.  It's not common, but it happens.  And the people who suffer these delusions truly believe that their fantasies are real.  They construe innocuous events as secret signals; they see personal meaning in meaningless encounters.  This is what we see with Jam.  She was vulnerable and Reeve gave her enough attention that her mind did the rest, and concocted a fantasy world in which they were in love.  When that fantasy was blown, it compromised Jam's firmly-held worldview and she had a breakdown. 

So I, for one, sympathize a lot with Jam.  Maybe I've never suffered from delusions, but I can imagine what it would be to do so.  And it hurts just as much to lose someone you believe you were in love with as it does to actually lose someone you were in love with--and in the first case, no one is going to offer you a shoulder to cry on.  

No comments:

Post a Comment