A complimentary advanced reader copy of this book was provided by Girls on the Same Page ARC Tours in exchange for an honest review. (Thank you!) My review was in no way influenced by this consideration.
“It’s funny how you can go for a long time in life not needing someone, and then you meet them and you suddenly need them all the time.”
There was a sense of mystery that came in the package that held Belzhar. I knew little bits about the book–that it had something to do with Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar, that it related to journals, somehow. That something about it was a little magical, a little curious. I honestly wasn’t sure whether I’d like it.
I’m not sure whether I’ve been so fascinated by a book in …months, at least. Belzhar is wholly captivating. Mysterious, yes, but not overtly so. Curious, certainly, but in a way that drew me in completely, and made me want more with every page. I savored this book.
A bit about the plot: Jam is headed for a year, at least, of school at The Wooden Barn, which she’s told is for emotionally “fragile” students. She definitely fits the bill. She’s been through a trauma; her boyfriend, Reeve, has died, and she’s just barely come through a period of major depression. Somehow, she and four of her fellow students have all been assigned to Special Topics in English, an oddity of a class taught by a direct but kind teacher, who assigns them each a journal to write in over the course of the semester.
The journal, it turns out, unlocks Jam’s personal journey to truth and recovery. The class, outside of instruction time, turns out to be more about forging bonds of friendship than Sylvia Plath. Belzhar, the place, is different for each person who visits, but it is always somewhere that leads the visitor toward healing, and as a writer and lover of language, I found the entire concept fascinating. It’s been years since I wrote in a journal, but I used to find the exercise therapeutic, and I love the idea of the concept blown out further, and imagined on a much deeper scale. The relationship to Plath was also intriguing, and seeing how the students related their own lives back to her, and the entire experience came full-circle, was rewarding as a reader.
The beauty of the novel for me, though, was the character development, and the relationships between the students. The overall theme of the book, for me, was friendship, and the value people have to one another. I thought it was handled with such tenderness and grace, particularly in light of the situation in which each of the characters began. Watching Jam, Sierra, Casey, Griffin, and Marc grow closer together over the course of a few months, and the lovely, subtle ways in which Wolitzer writes these connections was truly beautiful. It’s one of the reasons I love literary fiction, and this is definitely YA writing with a literary feel. Readers who enjoy character-driven novels will love Belzhar. I know I did.
Casey looks over at Marc and nods, and he nods back. They’ve become close in this one instant; it’s amazing how that can happen. It happened to Sierra and me, too. A single shared moment.
4.5 stars. Maybe 4.75. Only a little tick off because there is some language, in some intense places. That’s always a little bit of a bummer for me. Otherwise, Belzhar is absolutely stellar.