Published by Dutton Children’s on September 30, 2014
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If life were fair, Jam Gallahue would still be at home in New Jersey with her sweet British boyfriend, Reeve Maxfield. She’d be watching old comedy sketches with him. She’d be kissing him in the library stacks.
She certainly wouldn’t be at The Wooden Barn, a therapeutic boarding school in rural Vermont, living with a weird roommate, and signed up for an exclusive, mysterious class called Special Topics in English.
But life isn’t fair, and Reeve Maxfield is dead.
Until a journal-writing assignment leads Jam to Belzhar, where the untainted past is restored, and Jam can feel Reeve’s arms around her once again. But there are hidden truths on Jam’s path to reclaim her loss.
From New York Times bestselling author Meg Wolitzer comes a breathtaking and surprising story about first love, deep sorrow, and the power of acceptance.
If you’re already skeptical about someone being in deep, dark mourning lasting a year over someone they knew for only a few weeks then this is definitely not going to be a book for you. Although normally that would put me off I really, really wanted this book to work. Considering Wolitzer is well established in adult literary fiction, I suppose I figured she was likely to have a shot at creating a truly wrenching story of lost love even if that love was so brief. There were a couple of clear ways this scenario could work and I was curious to see if Wolitzer would pull it off. She didn’t. Everything about this story is surface level only. There is no depth of emotion, no character development, limited growth, stunted pacing, and one hell of an obnoxious ending that had me going, “Seriously?!”
So here’s the plot: After a year of near catatonic mourning, Jam is sent to a therapeutic boarding school where she is placed in a very selective English class. The class, focused solely on the writings of Sylvia Plath, has the teens chronicle their emotional processes through journaling. Jam has 4 other classmates each grapping with their own devastating trauma. When the students discover that their journals take them to a mysterious otherworld where they can revisit their lives pre-trauma they form a sort of secret pact. They name this otherworld Belzhar and meet regularly to discuss what each has seen there. All except Jam whose suffering is so great she can barely scratch the surface of what happened to her.
This book is all tell and no show. The relationship between Jam and Reeve always feels distant and empty. We have only a few scant memories of the time they spent before Reeve’s death (it was only a few weeks). None of them are particularly poignant or deep. Then there is the time they spend in Belzhar but that is also distinctly empty (they are limited to reliving what has already happened-which wasn’t much). And we are never really present in Jam’s feelings. I understand that a good part of this is because Jam is having difficulty processing her deep grief and can’t let too much in. Jam says she is devastated, and I guess we are to believe her, but there is nothing in the writing that ever conveys her devastation or evoked any sort of emotion from me as a reader. In order for this book to have worked for me there needed to be a strong emotional foundation portrayed in Jam and Reeve’s relationship and it was just not there.
As for the character development…well, there is none. Jam is never fully fleshed out as an individual. I couldn’t tell you what type of person Jam is other than “deeply troubled.” And again with the telling not showing: We are told Jam becomes best friends with Sierra, a fellow Belzhar classmate, but we barely ever see them interact. The supporting characters felt like much more realized individuals than Jam ever does and are far more interesting. Any emotion this book managed to eke out of me came from the other classmates.
For the vast majority of this book I felt nothing. I was turning the pages, sure, but I had no attachment to Jam or the story. I kept going because I was certain the ending, whatever it was that Jam was repressing, was going to blow my mind. No. Everything of possible emotional import in this book is negated by the ending.
Here’s the twist and why it doesn’t work: View Spoiler » Jam and Reeve were never in an actual relationship. Reeve is also very much alive. He is “dead” only to Jam after she discovered him kissing another girl. Jam was experiencing an apparent psychotic break where she interpreted all of Reeve’s ambivalent to somewhat positive reactions to her as proof of a relationship. Her mind created a relationship between them where there was none. And in the end, Jam just needs to finally face the fact that there never was a relationship between her and Reeve in order for her to heal and move on. No, no, no, and no. Jam apparently underwent a major psychotic episode. It would take much more than that to help her with this very serious mental condition. Nope, in the book Jam finally faces the truth and ta da! She’s all better now! Not to mention that Jam is surrounded by classmates who have lived actual tragedies. It just makes her ordeal ring so shallow and hollow in comparison. All of the potential meaning is negated by this pointless ending. It’s so awful. « Hide Spoiler
To add insult to injury the book closes with a few final chapters that wrap everything up neatly with a bow of overly tidy, patronizing explanation and rainbows for all. I couldn’t escape the feeling that Wolitzer had a very cursory understanding of what a young adult novel should be. Almost as if she had a checklist of cliches. The entire book comes across as a cheap gimmick. The cover says that this is a story about “first love, deep sorrow, and the power of acceptance.” This book is not even remotely close to being any of those things.
And perhaps I’m judging this more harshly than I should because of its pretensions to comparison with The Bell Jar, a literary masterpiece and an intense examination of actual suffering. Belzhar has little to do with any of Plath’s works other than some superficial mentions touched on a few times in the text. Like pretty much everything else in this story it’s all surface, no depth.
This is definitely my most disappointing read of the year so far. My initial interest was piqued when I saw this book billed, somewhere along the way, as a retelling of The Bell Jar. This is most definitely not a retelling of The Bell Jar. Not even close. I think this is the sort of book that will appeal to fans of We Were Liars (though the twists are nowhere even remotely similar) in the way that it is about damaged teens who are part of a “secret club” and shares a similar tone and feel with that work.
Looking for a second opinion? My friend Jamie at the Perpetual Page Turner had a much more positive experience than I did as well as some very moving words on the impact of The Bell Jar that is well worth your read.
An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.