20 October 2014

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

I’ll cut to the chase: Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar is getting a lot of hype. Was it worth it, to me?

Well, yes and no.

Belzhar takes place at The Wooden Barn, a school for “highly intelligent, emotionally fragile” teens. Jam (short for Jamaica) has been sent there to help her overcome her severe, debilitating depression after her boyfriend, Reeve, dies.

Belzhar captured the fog of depression, and the loneliness of being a teenager, quite beautifully. The voice was delightful, funny and heartbreaking.

Jam gets assigned to Special Topics in English, a class of hand-picked students, to study Sylvia Plath. The class studies Plath’s Bell Jar and is assigned to write in a special journal twice a week.

What quickly becomes apparent is that the journals are more than they seem, and that the class selection - and the reading - are linked. Each of Jam’s classmates are trapped in grief of some kind. And the journals are their way out.

I loved the characters in Belzhar. All were unique, quirky, immensely interesting, and they felt like reflections of people I knew back in high school.


The big twist of Belzhar was that Jam’s boyfriend didn’t actually die. She wasn’t even dating him. She had concocted this fantasy life about him and then when faced with reality, she couldn’t handle it - and “killed him” in her mind. Then went around telling people her boyfriend had died.

It seemed to me she experienced a psychotic break. And when she realizes how she twisted reality, she’s ashamed - worried that her grief pales in comparison to her classmates, who were dealing with lost siblings or destroyed home lives or being confined to a wheelchair.

Part of me was angry at her for blowing everything so out of proportion. I felt betrayed - just as she feared.

But mental illness is a complicated thing, and it’s portrayed compassionately in Belzhar. Not only was I able to forgive Jam, but her friends were, too.

Belzhar was a complicated novel. No wonder it’s getting so much hype. It’s at once intensely personal and intensely...well, literary. It strikes a good balance. And though it made me angry at times, it was ultimately rewarding.