Narrator: Jorjeana Marie
Published by Penguin on 2014-09-30
Genres: Death & Dying, Depression & Mental Illness, Girls & Women, Social Issues, Young Adult
Length: 8 hrs. 6 mins.
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If life were fair, Jam Gallahue would still be at home in New Jersey with her sweet British boyfriend, Reeve Maxfield. She'd be watching old comedy sketches with him. She'd be kissing him in the library stacks.
She certainly wouldn't be at The Wooden Barn, a therapeutic boarding school in rural Vermont, living with a weird roommate, and signed up for an exclusive, mysterious class called Special Topics in English.
But life isn't fair, and Reeve Maxfield is dead.
Until a journal-writing assignment leads Jam to Belzhar, where the untainted past is restored, and Jam can feel Reeve's arms around her once again. But there are hidden truths on Jam's path to reclaim her loss.
From New York Times best-selling author Meg Wolitzer comes a breathtaking and surprising story about first love, deep sorrow, and the power of acceptance.
Belzhar gets its name from The Bell Jar– Sylvia Plath’s 1963 book. In Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar, a group of Vermont boarding school students are studying Plath in an exclusive English class. Their writing assignment is to keep a journal, and this is the vehicle that takes them to “Belzhar,” a place where they can revisit the past, and deal with their demons.
I liked Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings last year, so I was eager to read Belzhar, her YA debut. It’s smart, literary and twisty, and reminded me a bit of We Were Liars (though I preferred this book.)
The setting of Belzhar is a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent teenagers.” All of the students at The Wooden Barn have experienced a loss of some kind. A select group of five students joins Special Topics in English with Mrs. Quenell. This class is impossible to get into and shrouded in secrecy. New student Jam (for Jamaica) Gallahue is at The Wooden Barn to help her get over the loss of her boyfriend, British exchange student Reeve Maxfield. (The first line of the book is “I was sent here because of a boy.”) She gets an invite to Mrs. Quenell’s class and through her eyes we get to visit Belzhar.
The five students in the class notice something unusual when they begin to write in their journals. They decide to meet weekly to talk about their experiences and we learn what brought everyone to The Wooden Barn. The journal is somehow a portal to the past, and that’s where we flashback to Jam’s time with Reeve.
I was really absorbed in this book and flew right through it. I was hooked on the idea of these magical journals and eager to find out what happened when the class assignment ended. Can they help you make peace with the past so you can move on? I was so intrigued and wondered if I’d want such a journal to write in.
Jam gets close to the students in her class and I was invested in their stories as well. Everyone has their reasons for ending up at The Wooden Barn and I liked how there wasn’t any judgment from anyone, and students had each other’s backs.
I listened to Belzhar in audiobook format. Jorjeana Marie reads the audiobook and this was my first experience with this narrator. I did speed up the narration a little to suit my listening taste, but otherwise I was happy with the performance and felt she was a good match. Marie sounds age appropriate and read with emotion and intensity. I’d definitely listen to this narrator again.
I picked up a copy of The Bell Jar recently for my teen’s summer reading, though neither of us has read it yet. I don’t think knowledge of the book is needed necessarily to enjoy Belzhar, though you may be inspired to pick it up after.
I’m glad Wolitzer tried her hand at YA. Belzhar is a good crossover book for Wolitzer’s adult fans (and YA fans should try out The Interestings too.) A thought provoking, powerful read.