Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

belzharI could not WAIT to read this book. All I needed to read of the description was “boarding school for highly intelligent emotionally fragile teens” and I immediately placed myself #1 on the hold list. In fact, I didn’t even read more of the description than that so I could enjoy just letting the story unfold and surprise me. (if you like that experience you can take my word that it’s great and stop reading this review now, otherwise read on and I will give away a few details.) Let me say that I loved The Interestings, but have not been very interested (sometimes actively disinterested) in Meg Wolitzer’s other novels. But really, she is a terrific writer.

Jam (short for Jamaica) is very sad and unable to interact well with the world ever since her boyfriend died. Finally her parents send her to this boarding school, The Wooden Barn, in Vermont that specializes in teens who have had troubles.  When she arrives she finds out that she has been assigned to the mysterious “Special Topics in English” class. Her roommate tells her no one ever gets into it who applies, they only study one author, and all the students claim it changes their lives buy won’t say why. It turns out that Jam is in the class with 4 other kids and they can’t figure out what they have in common. Their teacher tells them are going to study Sylvia Plath (and only Plath) for the entire semester. In addition to other work they receive leather journals that the are required to write in. The teacher tells them she won’t read the journals, but will collect them at the end of the semester and never return them.  She also asks that the students care for and look out for one another.  It’s hard for Jam to see that happening because she’s so wrapped up in her grief and doesn’t want to make friends. But then they all write in their journals and something happens that does bind them all together.

I loved the supernatural/mysterious element of this book. I loved the surprises, the emotions, the construction of it. It was all around terrific. And I’ll be honest-I also appreciated that it wasn’t 500 pages and was a fairly quick read, very engrossing, but not dragged out.
I want to call out one bit of the book that I loved and am sure is Meg Wolitzer’s own voice coming through and to it I say, “right on sister! I totally agree and love it that you call this out so specifically.” Near the end, when Jam has had her life changing semester, she says:

“People are always saying these things about how there’s no need to read literature anymore–that it won’t help the world. Everyone should apparently learn to speak Mandarin, and learn how to write code for computers.  More young people should go into STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and math.  And that all sounds true and reasonable. But you can’t say that what you learn in English class doesn’t matter. That great writing doesn’t make a difference….Words matter.  This is what Mrs. Q has basically been saying from the start. Words matter.  All semester, we were looking for the words to say what we needed to say. We were all looking for our voice.”

Words and stories do matter. They are worth studying, enjoying, interpreting, internalizing, and more.

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