Published by Penguin on September 30th 2014
Genres: Death & Dying, Depression & Mental Illness, Fantasy, Girls & Women, Social Issues, Young Adult
Suggested age range: 14 and up
The Book: Jam has been sent away from home. She now temporarily lives at a boarding school known as The Wooden Barn, with other “troubled” teens. She is having trouble getting over the death of her boyfriend, Reeve, and her parents are desperate for her to get back to normal. So off she goes to rural Vermont, and though she doesn’t want to be there, at first, she is signed up for an invite only class known as Special Topics in English. The class turns out to be focused on Sylvia Plath, and each student receives a special journal in which they share their thoughts. What Jam quickly finds out is that the journal possesses a magical ability to transport her to a past where Reeve is still alive. What other secrets does this strange world of Belzhar hold and will it help her come to terms with Reeve’s absence?
Spirituality in Belzhar: Working through your issues. We all know what that’s like—in one way or another. This notion of being broken after losing a person is an aspect of the story that some readers could relate to, and there’s a spiritual element to the story here. Grief is natural, and people work through grief in different ways. Journaling as a therapeutic technique for Jam and her peers is explored in the story, and this made me think about how we can reveal more of ourselves through our creative output—whether that is through writing, artwork, dance, or music. Belzhar definitely made me think, and I’m fascinated by the wide range of responses this book attracted!
Who Should Read This Book: I haven’t read anything else of Wolitzer’s but after I heard her speak at the Boston Book Festival, I requested this book from the library. Now I’m planning to read some of her other fiction, and I know she is well-known for her adult literary fiction. If you’re looking for something a bit different, this may be a book for you—the premise was unique to me, and I really had no idea how things were going to turn out with Jam and Reeve and Belzhar. You’ll see from GoodReads that some readers really didn’t like this book for its lack of character development and neatly tied up ending. It may not be for everyone, but the premise and the situation Jam was going through were really interesting to me. I enjoyed it. It was a story I couldn’t put down, and though there were some eye rolling moments with Jam’s character, there were some issues that came up that I think would be relevant for teen readers.
The Final Word: Belzhar is a mysterious place, which intrigued me, and I loved the discussion of Plath and her works. Though the twist in the story may or may not work for you, I think this book is worth picking up.