Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2014, 264 pages
I had heard about Belzhar a while back — it was a pretty big deal because there was speculation that it was a modern-day The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath), which I read January of my freshman year of college (great book — do not recommend reading during seasonal affective disorder season, you feel?). While The Bell Jar plays a role in Belzhar, it pretty easily could have been any other major work of literature featuring themes of depression. Belzhar follows Jamaica “Jam” in her first semester at a school for teens experiencing emotional and psychological difficulties. Many students are there as a result of specific traumas. Jam, for instance, is dealing with the loss of her boyfriend. A select group of students are registered for a Special Topics English class, in which they are given a journal to write in which transports them to a sort-of space where the students can live as if their traumas never happened — but nothing gold can stay, as they say.
Belzhar had a lot of potential that simply wasn’t reached. Wolitzer touched on some really great material, but never quite grasped it fully in the big picture of the novel. Plot-wise, the story moved a bit slowly, particularly at the beginning. Meanwhile, the end moved too quickly and packed in too many events. Wolitzer brings up interesting sub-plots, but generally left them underdeveloped and only vaguely resolved. I will say, like at least a few of the readers on Goodreads, that I did not see the big twist at the end coming and was pleasantly surprised how off-guard I was caught. This twist is arguably a sort-of parallel to The Bell Jar, which I appreciated.
I found most of the characters to be really interesting and incredibly unique for the kind of fiction I typically read. Jam, our first-person narrator, mentioned a few times how she was “like other girls” and had straight hair “like other girls.” I very rarely see books about the Aeropostale/Abercrombie teen stereotype. Instead, I more frequently see the, “I’m not like other girls, look at my blue hair and my non-comformist attitude. I’m so different. Ugh.” Ugh, indeed. Feminist rants aside, I’m frankly tired of those characters, so Jam was a welcome change. The rest of Belzhar‘s cast was equally unique – I was particularly intrigued by Griffin and Sierra, though other frequently-occurring characters were plenty-rounded (DJ! Marc! Casey!) as well.
I didn’t see anything particularly remarkable about Wolitzer’s writing style. On occasion, it border-lined on uninteresting and even poorly-written sentences, but for the most part it was readable. There were a few instances of Wolitzer inserting SAT words, as if she was trying to get readers to learn new things. While that’s an honorable mission, I felt those words were out-of-character for Jam, so it just became distracting more than anything else.
Overall, Belzhar is a quick read, not too bad, but definitely does not live up to its potential. (Also, that cover? Gorgeous.)