A brilliant book can light the way
Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
"What happened in that class is something that none of us have ever talked about to anyone else. Though of course we think about it all the time, and I imagine we'll think about it for the rest of our lives."
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is one of my favourite books and I love everything I've read by Meg Wolitzer so far. When I discovered Wolitzer had written a young adult novel loosely inspired by Plath's masterpiece, I was so excited! Belzhar did not disappoint, I was fascinated by the characters as well as the strange other-worldly location to which they are transported.
Belzhar is narrated in the first person by Jam, a fifteen-year-old girl who has been sent to The Wooden Barn. This is an unconventional, private boarding school for "emotionally fragile, highly intelligent" students. While there, Jam joins a class called "Special Topics in English" which has only five pupils, including herself.
Few students who apply to the “smallest, most elite class in the school” are accepted. Then there are those, like Jam, who are added to the group without even requesting it. Jam’s roommate DJ says that “everyone in the class acts like it’s no big deal. But then when it’s over, they say things about how it changed their lives.” DJ adds that it’s like “one of those secret societies.”
On the first day of Special Topics in English, Jam meets fellow classmates Griffin, Sierra, Marc and Casey. The enigmatic teacher, Mrs Quenell, assigns one text, The Bell Jar. She hands out journals, insisting that they write in them twice a week, and requests that they, "look out for one another." When Marc asks what they are to write in the journals, Mrs Quenell replies with, "whatever best tells the story of you."
As DJ predicts, the students do form a close bond, albeit reluctantly to begin with. Soon they're having midnight meetings which reminded me a little of the 1989 film, Dead Poets Society. The traumatic experiences each character has suffered are gradually revealed. As the characters get to know each other, they become better acquainted with their own selves and come to terms with their pasts. By the end of the book, I felt as intimate with the protagonists as they are with one another.
"To find out what another human being feels, a person who isn't you; to get a look under the hood, so to speak. A deep look inside. That's what writing is supposed to do.”
The characters are incredibly convincing, extraordinarily compelling, and brought to life so brilliantly, you feel as though you know them personally. Jam’s sardonic wit made her my favourite and I loved how she describes other people and her own circumstances. An example of this is when she someone is like, "a long beaker in chemistry class, and the top was always bubbling over because some interesting process was taking place inside." Jam also says: "To find out what another human being feels, a person who isn't you; to get a look under the hood, so to speak. A deep look inside. That's what writing is supposed to do.” You certainly feel like you are getting "a look under the hood" of all the characters in this story and I was emotionally invested in all of them. I couldn’t put Belzhar down - I read it in a few hours.
This has been referred to as a supernatural romance and I’m not sure I agree with that description. There are paranormal and romantic elements, but I would consider it more a coming-of-age story about love, loss, forgiveness, acceptance and finding a sense of belonging. Belzhar acknowledges that to live is to experience pain, how it’s impossible to hide from this, and important to learn a way of handling it. This book suggests that even extremely unpleasant experiences can offer wisdom and strength, and that we should try to reclaim rather than regret them.
Each protagonist benefits greatly from Mrs Quenell taking both them and their anguish seriously. This is something that not every teenager, fictional or real, is afforded. I love how reading and writing help the students make sense of, and recover from, their trauma, demonstrating the transformative powers of literature. Although the narrative is at times quite dark, it is infused with the light of hope and optimism.
Jam writes that: “Books light the fire - whether it’s a book that’s already written, or an empty journal that needs to be filled in.” The following lines should resonate with, and reassure, those experiencing difficulties, whether they are an adolescent or grown up: “And I also know that pain can seem like an endless ribbon. You pull it and you pull it. You keep gathering it toward you, and as it collects, you really can’t believe that there’s something else at the end of it. Something that isn’t just more pain. But there’s always something else at the end; something at least a little different. You never know what that thing will be."
This is an inclusive story with characters from diverse cultural backgrounds and one who uses a wheelchair. The LGBT community is also represented. You don’t need to be familiar with Plath’s work or life to enjoy Belzhar. It would be an interesting introduction to this author and poet if you have not read anything by or about her before. I’d recommend Belzhar to adult fans of Wolitzer, anyone who enjoyed Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld (though they’re very different), as well as readers age 12 and upwards.
I also loved The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer (it's one of the best books I've ever read). Although it's not intended for young adults, I think it would probably be suitable from age fourteen or fifteen, depending on the reader. Wolitzer has collaborated with fellow bestselling author, Holly Goldberg Sloan, on a middle grade novel. This is called To Night Owl from Dogfish and is described by the publisher as a "reverse parent-trap for a new generation." It sounds brilliant and I'm looking forward to reading it. I'll share a review as soon as I can!