|Source: Goole Books|
I picked up Belzhar after hearing about it on Book Riot’s Youtube channel and a million other places on the internet book world - I couldn’t get away from it as an anticipated new release for the fall. I promptly put it on my library request list and forgot about it. I already own two other books by Wolitzer, The Wife and The Position, that I haven't read yet. But with endless recommendations for her writing style and story crafting, and the kick in the pants YA has on my reading habits, I jumped in headfirst and finished Belzhar within 72 hours of picking it up.
Belzhar is about Jam, a 15 year old girl who is sent to The Wooden Barn boarding school for “highly intelligent and emotionally fragile” teenagers after the trauma of losing her British exchange student boyfriend, Reeve. At the Wooden Barn, Jam is placed in the Special Topics in English class with four other students hand picked (for mysterious reasons) by Mrs. Quennell. Mrs. Q helps these five teens heal over the course of one semester by teaching The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and requiring students to journal about themselves. What happens when the students journal allow them to become a close knit group of friends (almost like a secret society) and overcome the hardships that brought them to The Wooden Barn.
I liked this book for several reasons. Personally, my entire undergraduate degree was focused on the psychology of school-aged students so this hit home to me on an academic level. I think mental health is a very important topic that should be taught to young adults in schools, at home, in the media, etc., but doesn’t receive much attention. Meg Wolitzer creates characters with backgrounds that are relatable enough for people who have not experienced trauma to remain sympathetic and empathetic to the experiences the characters have had. She brings attention to their mental health issues (depression, binge eating, withdrawal) and emotions (fear, anger, resentment, remorse) without making the issue or emotion the sole defining trait of the character.
Secondly, the emphasis that Wolitzer put on introspection and journaling was constructive and realistic and generally awesome even though not every character had a happy ending. At the end of the 260ish page book, despite making growth in their personal journeys to overcome their experiences, every character was not fully healed. But they were able to function better in their daily lives and form relationships with new people because of their journals. I think this is a great message for the teens that are going to read this book.
The main drawback I felt while reading this book was the lack of depth with the characters. Even though every character had a reason to be at the The Wooden Barn, none were explained or explored in a below the surface context. As a young adult reader, that much depth might not be necessary to pull you into the book, but I think that would have added a lot more for adult readers. There was also a lot of telling instead of experiencing about the healing each character experienced, specifically at the conclusion of the novel when the characters wrote in their journals for the last time.
Overall I enjoyed Belzhar book for the value it will provide to young adult readers and the contribution to mental health literature but I wouldn't recommend this to everyone. I think young adults, teachers, and parents would get the most out of this book. It brings emotional growth and development of adolescents into the forefront of your mind and makes you think about the validity of emotional experiences adolescents have instead of writing them off as hormonal or growing pains.