Review of Belzhar

by Meg Wolitzer
High School   Dutton   264 pp.
9/14   978-0-525-42305-8   $17.99   g

After her boyfriend Reeve’s death, Jam Gallahue is shipped off to The Wooden Barn, a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teens. There she’s placed in a widely coveted, extremely selective course called Special Topics in English, one of just five students in the class. Jam doesn’t understand why she was chosen, and she isn’t especially pumped about the semester’s only materials: Sylvia Plath’s poems; her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar; and a journal to write in. However, while completing her first assignment she’s surprised to find that the act of writing in the journal transports her to an alternate realm where all is exactly, blissfully, as it had been with Reeve — a phenomenon experienced by everyone in the Special Topics class. Once camaraderie develops among the students, they are able to understand how traveling to “Belzhar” helps them cope with their painful pasts. Much of the book seems to straddle the real and the supernatural, but it’s ultimately about the otherworldly things the mind is capable of — in its reaction to trauma but also in its ability to heal. Wolitzer’s novel is rich with biographical tidbits about Plath, thoughtful discussion of her writing, and evidence of a deep connection with and understanding of her motifs. The parallel works well within Jam’s story; her isolation and inability to see clearly through pain, until, satisfyingly, she steps out of a proverbial bell jar and realizes that “the experiences you’ve lived through, make you definitely not fragile. They make you brave.”

From the November/December 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Katrina Hedeen

Katrina Hedeen is former managing editor and projects editor for The Horn Book, Inc.

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