Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

Sometimes, when I’m reading a book, I start to draft my review in my head long before I’m finished the book. This usually happens when a thematic point of the book really resonates with me. When I know it’s something I want to read. I had that early in with Belzhar. A YA book dealing with the multifaceted ways to grieve. I was excited. But then I kept reading. And now, instead, I’m going to talk about the myriad of ways that this book slapped that potential review in the face. Okay, I’m not really, cause that would be a dick move. But I am going to talk about the potential in this story and why I don’t think it lived up to it. Belzhar’s report card includes the infuriating note ‘is not living up to its potential’.

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer is the September read for my book club. So like a good little clubber, I went to the library, picked up a copy, and got down to the business of reading. I was only a chapter or so in when one of my fellow BC members posted a comment on Goodreads expressing her displeasure with the book. But how? How could she dislike this book so much? It has such a good premise. Here’s the book I was settling in to read – A group of teens, each having suffered a personal trauma they’ve been unable to get over, are attending a special school that will help them admit, and deal with, the cause of said trauma. Through a special English class, five of these students will study the work of Sylvia Plath – a markedly troubled writer – and find healthy outlets for their emotions. Along the way, they get these journals that allow them to travel to some kind of altered reality where they can live in their life before the event that brought them to the school. And by going there, they will learn that remaining stuck in their past only prolongs their ordeal. A tiny bit of fantasy in a contemporary YA novel. I am totally down for this book. It sounds awesome, right? Right? Yeah… (Here come all the spoilers – FYI)

So, I understand there were readers looking for a modern Dead Poets Society in this novel. The charismatic, oddball teacher who forces them to see themselves. I wasn’t. I was exactly the right age for DPS the first time round. I don’t need a new one. What I wanted was a book that allowed teens to live in their grief and find their own ways to recover from it. Some of them might not be successful, but that would be okay. If you’ve read my TTT of death and dying in YA lit, you know this is a topic I feel strongly about. Our main character, Jam, suffered the death of her boyfriend a year earlier. Together for less than a month, she’d succumbed – like 100% succumbed – to this first time love. And then he was ripped away from her and she was unable to move beyond it. In an adult, unacceptable. In the fifteen year old mind, believable. She’s so traumatized that she can’t even talk about it with her group. The others share their stories: the girl babysitting her brother when he went missing; the girl paralyzed because of her mother’s drinking and driving; the boy who caught his father cheating and exposed the secret to his family; and the boy who burned down his family barn, killing all the animals and the family livelihood. These stories come out over time in the book. Some students share easily. Some need prompting. Others need a new life event to get them to talk. But Jam only lets them know her boyfriend died and then never talks about it. At all!

Now, I’m not complaining that she doesn’t talk to them. That makes sense. She’s the hold out. She’s our central focus. Waiting on her story is a good plot device. The problem is that she never talks about it with the reader. She never thinks about it. Never writes about it. Never does anything. She simply moons of Reeve. This avoidance is the result of two things – there’s a major plot twist at the end that the author is trying to avoid spoiling, and then there’s the writing… It’s mostly the fault of the writing. This book is all tell. Tell tell tell. We’re told that Jam and Sierra are becoming best friends. They become closer than anyone has ever been. Sierra is the closest person in world to Jam. She is more important that the girl Jam has been best friends with since she was a toddler. They talk about all this really important stuff. They share their hopes and dreams. Yadda Yadda Yadda. Except we never seen this happen. Jam just tells us that it’s happening in a couple sentences and we’re just supposed to believe it’s true. I think we get maybe two scenes where it’s just the two of them and not the entire group. And those scenes are so unmemorable that I literally don’t remember them. I just think they probably happened. This happens over and over again. Jam tells us about how amazing their class discussions are, but we never see them. She tells us about their teacher’s intense connection to each of them, but it’s never demonstrated except for what seems to be a need to stare intensely – read: creepily.

And every reference in the book is explained to death. There’s a scene between Jam and her roommate where Jam is about to sneak out at night. I wish I had the quote, but I had a choice today. Putting this book in my bag along with everything else would have tipped it over into the too heavy to carry classification. So, I could have taken out the book I’m currently reading and brought Belzhar for reviewing purposes, or I could not do that. And the thought of replacing my currently good book with this one gives me an eye twitch. So, you’re getting my paraphrasing. DJ is telling Jam that she’s making a mistake. She basically says – do that and you’ll be wearing a giant red E on your shirt for expelled. That’s a reference to the Scarlet Letter in case you didn’t know –Are you serious!? How stupid do you think your readers are? Do you think that they can’t use Google? If they don’t know the reference (which I think most people probably do) and want to know what it is, they will go look it up. Allow your readers to figure stuff out on their own. By do this over and over again, the author constantly talks down to the reader. This is one of the reasons people don’t want to read YA. Why it gets written off as crap literature. Because some authors have this burning need to make teenagers seem stupid. Yeah, sometimes they are. But they also know how to access information at the drop of technological hat. The readers here are never allowed to stretch their interest. Everything in this book is so shallow. And the subject is so intense. It’s so very disappointing.

Before I get into Jam’s big plot reveal, which was actually so surprising it was almost offputting, I want to take a second to talk about Marc. The boy who discovered his dad was cheating. He might seem like a weird character to focus on, but I think he epitomizes where this book goes wrong, and why Jam’s reveal is throwing readers off. Marc is given to us as this perfect boy from this perfect family who had this silly thing happen to him and now his grades are bad and he’s so traumatized that he’s here at this school where he needs to apologize all the time for having the silliest trauma. This is how readers see him. Read some other reviews. He’s seen as a bit of a joke. And that’s because that’s how he’s portrayed. So much of the focus is on the fact that he needed to be perfect so he told on his dad. No! This is a fifteen/sixteen year old boy who walked into the study of a man who is not only his father, but also his hero, and saw a sex tape where his dad is taking it up the butt from a woman, who is not his mother, wearing a strap on. Now, take your personal sexual preferences out of the mix. Whatever you think of this particular act is irrelevant. Go back to your teenage self and imagine this happening. You don’t just see your parent with someone else. You see them partaking in something you’ve potentially never been exposed to before. You get to know that your parent has a sex tape. And then, instead of being a grown up, your parent asks you to keep their confidence and lie to your other parent about this big, huge, gigantic thing you’ve just discovered. And when you refuse, he gets so mad at you he won’t talk to you. And this thing that you’ve done – this very right thing of not lying for him – leads to the destruction of a family unit you’ve relied on for your entire life. A family unit you didn’t know could break. And you feel responsible. Of course this kid has trauma. No one has ever talked to him about how this isn’t his fault. About how perfection is not a requirement. And it isn’t talked about in this book either.

And now we get to Jam and her reveal. So, in their final journal entry, the students are all forced to go back to the moment of their trauma and see it for what it really was. To feel the pain they’ve been blocking. It is a healing tool. And when Jam, the final hold out, goes back, she finally has to admit the truth. Reeve never died. He was never even her boyfriend. She made the whole relationship up in her head. She took a few make out sessions with a lecherous boy and turned them into her first major romance. She was obsessed with him. And when he finally confronted her and laid everything out for her, she couldn’t handle it. She had a mental break and really, really believed that he was dead. She killed him in her mind. And she couldn’t get over it. No matter how many times people tried to confront her with the truth, she could not see it. This should have been her story. Her moment of revelation. Where she has to take her psychosis and face reality. But because of the way it’s handled, it comes off more like she’s just been lying to everyone for a year. She’s a silly, stupid girl who couldn’t get over a crush. But with the level of denial she demonstrates, she is clearly having real, physiological distress. But it’s hard for reader to connect because that’s absolutely not how it’s portrayed in the novel. It’s a shame really.

And now, here we are. At the end of what could have been an awesome novel. Notice how I haven’t mentioned Plath since the beginning? Yeah. That’s about as much screen time as she gets in the book, too. It feels like she was chosen solely for the purpose of coming up with the ridiculous name of this book. Her life could have been such a great sounding board for these kids. I love The Bell Jar. It’s way up there on my list of favourite books. And I just can’t… I think Wolitzer could have really done something great with this crossover. But that’s not what happened. There are more things I could talk about that went wrong in this book, but I just don’t want to. Some of Wolitzer’s other books sound great. But now I’m scared. If this is the writing style, is it worth the effort.

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3 thoughts on “Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

  1. When we talked about this book the other day, you didn’t mention the author. I read The Interestings and loved it because of the writing and the complexity of the characters, so it makes me sad that her first YA novel is such a disappointment. The parts of The Interestings which flashback to the protagonist’s youth are vivid and descriptive and some of my favourite parts of the novel. It seems like she dumbed down the content of this book because it’s YA and she doesn’t really understand how to write for teens. If she had simply written it as she has written her other novels, it probably would have been brilliant and that’s just…disappointing.

    • I could not remember her name. I had to look it up every time I typed it. The Interestings was on my list of books to read, but this one has left me feeling very leery.

      • I wouldn’t let Belzhar taint your whole impression of her writing. Judging from some other reviews I’ve read of it, many people had the same issues as you did including people who have loved her other novels. I could lend it to you.

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