Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
*(first third 3/5, final third, 1/5)
In what might be the first time ever, I did a 360 in my feelings for this book AFTER I started writing my review. I sat down to read Belzhar and had to stop two chapters in to write up my (gushingly positive) thoughts.
I had heard the hype: This is a great book! It has Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar! It has loss! It has a British boy! Of course, if you ask any of my friends all of these things put together are me.
I once was tasked with finding a piece of literature that “spoke to me” for an AP English Literature course. Having used up my other prime examples, Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, during my first two years of high school, I was forced to venture further afield. I knew that I didn’t want to be trite, didn’t want to pick Twilight or Harry Potter as I knew some of my classmates would. So I picked up the journals of the one woman I felt understood my tortured teenage soul: Sylvia Plath.
I had received her unabridged journals as a Christmas present the year before. They had been mentioned on my favorite TV show and, despite my mother’s misgivings about the mind of what she deemed a psycho, I begged for a copy. I was immediately smitten. Plath wrote in the stream of consciousness thought that I did. All of her sentences curved around themselves until she was back at the beginning, and I saw myself in those pages.
Unsurprisingly in retrospect, when I read a page from Plath’s diary in my AP English course, one of my friends remarked “Did you write that?” I was flattered beyond all belief.
All of this is to say, that I knew I would love Belzhar. But I didn’t anticipate that I would feel so at home from the first page. I picked it up at the library and, unwilling to wait another minute to crack it open, I skimmed the first page.
I then put it in my bag and left it there for two days. I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that I would get lost in that book and I wanted to be ready. I wanted adequate time to assemble my thoughts, my surroundings and most of all, I wanted time to ensure that I could finish the book in one setting. Because I knew I would not be able to put it down.
And all of that is true…to a certain extent. I loved the way Belzhar reinvented and repurposed Plath’s heady prose. I loved that we get to see teens with real problems learning how to deal with them. I loved that there was a strong emphasis on reading and writing as a way to work through issues. But I didn’t love where this story ultimately ended up.
I don’t want to give too much away for fear of spoiling the ending but, suffice it to say, there’s a lot more than “real life” happening in Belzhar. I think that is where my problem begins: the book is billed as a “real life” kind of teen book (more John Green and Sarah Dessen than Cassandra Clare and Tamora Pierce). But of course the book loses its grasp on reality rather quickly, pulling the footing right out from underneath a reader.
I absolutely think that this book is a worthwhile read for those who love The Bell Jar or for those who are looking for a vaguely supernatural tale. It was, however, entirely the wrong book for me.