Published by Dutton Books for Young Readers
Publication date: September 30th 2014
Genres: Coming-of-age, Fiction, Magical Realism, Young Adult
Imagine a small boarding school for “fragile” teens in rural Vermont and within that school an exclusive English class to which only 4 or 5 students are handpicked to join. With this Meg Wolitzer makes her debut in YA fiction. Having read and loved The Interestings, her last adult novel, I knew I had to give Belzhar a try. The school is The Wooden Barn and Jamaica (known as Jam) Gallahue has been sent there after her downward spiral when her boyfriend dies. She doesn’t care because she no longer cares about anything and when she is told that she is part of Mrs. Quenell’s Special Topics in English class, she doesn’t care about that either. Even when she learns that there is only one author taught for the entire semester and that the majority of the work involves writing twice a week in a journal provided by the teacher—that will never be read by anyone else—she still cannot muster the energy to participate.
There are 4 other people in the class, none of whom know each other and most of whom have no particular interest in English or writing. It is only as they start writing in their journals and have similar experiences when they do, that they begin to come together. Belzhar is the code name they use to talk about these experiences as they fall well outside what normally happens at school. Wolitzer does a marvelous job at infusing just the right amount of magical realism into this aspect of Belzhar in that the journals are not just notebooks filled with paper but have a highly individualized and intense impact on each student. As the weeks pass, the writing experience deepens until the end of the semester approaches and events spin out of control.
Belzhar is a perfect amalgam of teenage life and fantasy. Even the fantastical properties of the journals feel real and not unexpected thanks to the way it is presented. Through the journals we learn each teen’s story while we watch them open up and start to bond. Wolitzer gives the same care to the teenage psyche that she does to her adult characters and it can be felt in her words. All of this came together for me with the exception of Jam. For whatever reason, her back story left me cold and feeling cheated but it does supply a high level of drama to the plot. Wolitzer is so gifted at probing the complexities of life and emotion at any age that Belzhar is a reading experience worth having even as an adult.
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