Take a Trip to 'Belzhar' in Meg Wolitzer's New Book
If you love to read, chances are strong that you’ve had a Sylvia Plath phase. Maybe it happened when you were in high school, maybe it happened when you were in college, or maybe it’s happening right now.
My personal Sylvia Plath phase occurred in my first year of college, while I was in the midst of dating a very dumb guy (quick PSA, everyone: if a relationship is making you think of Sylvia Plath poetry, get out now!). If you haven’t had a Sylvia Plath phase . . . well, in the words of the modern American classic film Jurassic Park, hold on to your butts. Meg Wolitzer’s new YA novel, Belzhar, will kickstart a Plath obsession. And, if you’re anything like me, it will also make you drop everything just to keep reading.
Jam Gallahue is a brand new student at The Wooden Barn, a boarding school described in its brochure as a haven for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teenagers. Jam’s emotional fragility can be traced back to a boy. Specifically, Reeve Maxfield who, as Jam explains to us in the opening sentences of the novel, she loved. As she puts it, “I loved him and then he died, and almost a year passed and no one knew what to do with me.”
And so Jam ends up at The Wooden Barn, where cell phones and Internet access aren’t allowed and Jam has to share a room with a girl who has “certain food issues.” Jam wonders how she’s even supposed to go to classes, since she basically checked out of life a long time ago. But when she gets signed up for Special Topics in English, she realizes she might not have a choice. Jam definitely didn’t apply to be in it, but somehow, she and four other students wound up in the most coveted, mysterious class at The Wooden Barn. The teacher, Mrs. Quenell, is a legend around campus and former students say the class changed their lives.
Jam isn’t exactly eager to have a life-changing experience. Instead, she just wants to go back to the way things used to be, when Reeve was around and she was happy. But then Mrs. Quenell gives each class member a journal. Mrs. Q. promises not to read them, but she does insist that the students write in them. Jam isn’t stoked to keep a journal because, “there’s nothing I want to write. I’m hardly going to put down on paper the things I think about all the time, night and day. The person I think about. That’s only for me.”
When Jam actually starts writing in the journal . . . well, something weird happens. I’ll be vague to avoid any spoilers (I’m not trying to ruin your reading experience, I promise), but just know that the journal provides Jam with a way to revisit her past. But when the time comes to move on from the past, will Jam want to leave everything behind?
Belzhar is the kind of book you’ll want to read in one sitting, which is exactly what I did. Meg Wolitzer’s writing sucks you in immediately and all of her characters are fully realized. The book focuses not just on Jam’s recovery, but on her relationships with the other students in her class. We get a chance to hear how each student arrived at The Wooden Barn, and I appreciated that even though some of them faced situations that were technically “worse” than others, all of their trauma was seen as valid. Belzhar does an amazing job of realizing that the response to trauma is different for everyone, and what might be no big deal to one person could be totally life-shattering to someone else.
But let’s not forget about our girl Sylvia! She comes into the story because Mrs. Q. picks one writer to study each semester, and Plath just so happens to be her pick that semester. As one of the students points out, it’s a bold move to pick an author known for her mental illness when you’re teaching a class full of “emotionally fragile” kids, but Sylvia Plath’s poetry ends up holding a lot of meaning for everyone in the class.
Belzhar comes out on September 30th. Are you planning to pick up a copy? Be sure to let me know if you read it! And, as always, I love to hear your suggestions for books to feature in Young Adult Education. Leave a comment, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Twitter @KerryAnn.