Not-So-New Books: Belzhar

BELZHAR by Meg Wolitzer

If I were a teenage girl, I would love this book. As an adult, though, it irritated me. Which is kind of ironic because reading Wolitzer’s adult book The Interestings, I kept thinking that it would work much better as a young adult book, so maybe I'm just not her audience.

Jamaica (called Jam) Gallahue ends up at a Vermont boarding school for troubled kids because, a year after his death, she’s still mourning the loss of her boyfriend Reeve. At school, she’s assigned to a class called Special Topics in Literature, along with other students who’ve suffered great losses: Casey, who lost the use of her legs in an accident caused by her alcoholic mother; Sierra, whose little brother disappeared one night when she let him go to the store alone; Griffin, whose carelessness burned down his family’s barn, killing their entire goat herd. One by one, the students realize that when they write in the journals they’re required to keep for class, they find themselves back in the halcyon days before tragedy stuck. Jam gets to be with Reeve again. But there are only so many pages in the journal, and Jam knows that she’s eventually going to have to choose between the journal’s fantasy world and real life, which is becoming surprisingly good at her new school.

There’s a Big Twist near the end of the book that will either feel 1.) utterly predictable or 2.) utterly irritating. Either way, it leaves you feeling a little annoyed with Jam, I think. The secondary characters are well-drawn—I loved Jam’s roommate, and the other students in Special Topics were believable and engaging. And I do think that the tragedies of young adulthood are profound in ways that seem unreasonable to people outside of them, and Wolitzer does a good job of communicating that sense of “I-feel-things-so-much” that we all had in our teen years. Overall, I think it was interesting enough to recommend (hence the review), but it could have been so much better.