Friday, October 10, 2014

Book Review: "Belzhar" by Meg Wolitzer

You know, I thought this book was pretty fantastic. A little implausible? Sure, but I didn't feel like that lessened its appeal or emotional pull.

Jamaica "Jam" Gallahue is reeling from the death of her boyfriend, English exchange student Reeve. Even though they were only together for 41 days, their feelings for each other were so intense, and Jam is unable to cope with her grief, which upsets her family and alienates her closest friends. All she wants to do is relive their moments together.

With seemingly no other alternative, Jam's parents send her to The Wooden Barn, a boarding school in Vermont for "emotionally fragile" teenagers. Students are isolated from the outside world, without access to their cell phones or the internet, and are closely monitored for any signs of crisis.

Unbeknownst to her, Jam is enrolled in an exclusive class, Special Topics in English. Each semester, the students in this class are mysteriously handpicked by the teacher with no rhyme or reason. It's a small class devoted to reading only one author the entire semester. While it may seem an odd choice for a school of students with emotional difficulties, this semester they'll be reading the work of Sylvia Plath.

There are four other students in Jam's class, each quite different, but all share the emotional trauma of a particular event that pushed their lives off course. The teacher, Mrs. Quenell, gives them two important assignments—they must write in the antique journal she gives each of them and return it at the end of the semester, and they must look out for each other. Seems easy, and no one can understand why this class is seemingly so exclusive.

But when Jam starts writing in her journal, she finds herself mysteriously transported back to her life with Reeve. She can relive their old memories, feel his arms around her again, and she finally feels safe and happy. Yet each time this happens, it is only for a short period of time, and when it ends, she finds pages of her journal have been inexplicably filled—with her handwriting. And this happens to each of her fellow students in the class—each is transported back to the moments before the trauma they suffered.

Does Mrs. Quenell know about the journals? If they tell her, will she take them away? And what happens when the journals fill up? The five students form a close-knit bond to try and manage the situation to their best advantage, but they fear that their happiness will only last the semester. What happens afterward, are they doomed back to their lives of pain and anguish?

As I've said numerous times before, I tend to love books that resonate for me emotionally (without being manipulative), and Belzhar definitely did. So many of us can identify with the feelings, if perhaps not the situations, that Jam and her classmates are dealing with. This is a sensitive, thought provoking, beautifully written book about having to make the choice between reliving past memories forever and moving on, and about the power of reading and writing to help us cope with and express our feelings.

Mrs. Quenell says in the book, "Words matter." And Meg Wolitzer's words really do matter, because they're so well chosen, so well expressed. I enjoyed this book tremendously and can't stop thinking about it, and if it weren't for work, I would have read the entire book in one day. As I mentioned, it's certainly a little implausible, but if you can suspend your disbelief, you'll find Belzhar well worth your while.

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