Two sisters' reviews of Young Adult and Middle Grade books, inspired by their lovely library.
This book is really spectacular. I have no idea how any author could come up with an idea like this in the first place, but mostly how they could weave the story so perfectly. Meg Wolitzer really is a master with plotting and suspense!
Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary, Fantasy, Romance, Mystery
Rating: 4.5 stars
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.
“It’s been a long while since a book has pulled me in this way; I read it leaning forward literally on the edge of my seat with my heart in my throat. I had no idea what was coming but I was hungry to get there. So subtly plotted and painfully beautiful, I couldn’t put it down. Meg Wolitzer is an amazing storyteller.”
-Jacqueline Woodson, author of Brown Girl Dreaming
I just had to start with this praise written on the back of Belzhar, since it summarizes my feelings about this book so perfectly. This book is really spectacular. I have no idea how any author could come up with an idea like this in the first place, but mostly how they could weave the story so perfectly. Meg Wolitzer really is a master with plotting and suspense!
Other than that, there are a few other story elements she could improve on, which other reviewers have latched on to as reasons to give very low reviews. Considering that I was actually glued to the last one hundred pages, I absolutely cannot let the few problems I had with this book sour my fantastic (and fantastical) experience, but I will explain them here.
Belzhar is about Jam, a girl who went through a terrible “experience” (not much more is revealed until the end of the book) revolving around the death of her boyfriend, Reeve Maxfield. After suffering from depression for many months, her parents send her to The Wooden Barn, in my own state of Vermont, where she is supposed to recuperate among others with similar life problems. She is lucky enough to be chosen to take the unique class Special Topics in English, which reads only a single book the entire semester. This year’s pick is The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, and as the five kids in the class read the book and journal about it, they are sent to a world (which they call Belzhar) where their life is perfect, a world before each of their accidents and traumas have occurred. Sounds like an interesting book, right? Overall, I would agree…
Unfortunately, there is a little bit of a let-down when Jam’s actual story comes out (**only for those who have read the book: to be honest, there was a point at which I thought she had murdered Reeve herself when she saw him with Dana–not with a knife or something but maybe pushing him in front of a car? I was really coming up with some crazy theories.) Her tale seems much less tragic than that of the rest of her classmates, but considering the way she interpreted the few months she had with Reeve, I’m not convinced she is entirely sane. If she does have some other problems going on, it would make sense that something so inconsequential would have such a big effect on her. Otherwise, it is simply disappointing and does not make much actual sense. I know I am not the only person who thinks this, as there are many low reviews on Goodreads for this reason.
There is a love triangle, but I didn’t really love either of the interests. There isn’t really much more I can say without giving away the entire thing (and the enjoyment of this book really relies on having no clue what is going on — I don’t think I’ll ever be able to re-read this book and like it so much).
Throughout the book, the reader is told that Jam is best friends with Sierra, another girl in Special Topics, and that they have a great connection and all, but the reader never actually sees it. Instead, we witness one, maybe two scenes of their connection, but there are many more scenes with her roommate DJ and Jam’s other friend Casey, which both seem much stronger than her relationship with Sierra. This telling versus seeing issue with the writing style is another one that shows how plot-driven this book is, and very few other literary techniques seemed as important to the author.
After visiting Belzhar for the first time, the five students in Special Topics decide to meet to discuss this strange occurrence. Funny enough, their meetings strongly remind me of The Breakfast Club scene where they are all discussing their pasts and why they are there.
The rules of Belzhar are also very interesting, something I really enjoyed thinking about. I liked how nothing happened that didn’t happen in real life, but it seemed strange and had no reasoning behind it that you would write exactly five pages and then be sent back. Why would this be?
Overall, I had a very good experience with Belzhar. I read it very quickly and loved the expert plotting and mystery involved. However, other aspects of good writing seemed very much ignored at parts. I’d certainly recommend this book for a quick (it’s not even 300 pages), light (but dark and deep at points) read that really makes you think and sometimes even shiver with excitement to find out what happens next–or what has already happened in the past…
This book counts for the School YA Bingo Challenge (in the category “A Book Set in a High School”), and marks my second bingo!!