Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

Reviewed for this blog by Geri, Ridgefield Library

Wolitzer has been publishing books since the early 1980s, but she hit it big last year with The Interestings. (She first came to my attention with her middle grade novel The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman. Shout out to The Nutmeg Book Award – that title was a nominee.). After all the buzz surrounding The Interestings, when it was announced that she’d be writing a novel inspired by Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, people took note.

In Belzhar, Jam Gallahue has been sent to The Wooden Barn,  a special high school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teens. Jam had a breakdown after the death of her boyfriend. While at The Wooden Barn she begins taking Special Topics in English, a class where she and four other students spend the semester studying one writer’s works; in this case, Sylvia Plath. Jam and her classmates are given journals to write in, and when they do, they are transported to a place they call Belzhar, a place that seems to exist out of time, and where whatever tragedy happened to them, hasn’t happened.

This title took me by surprise in the best possible way. I listened to the audio book, and the narrator was excellent in how that she presented the powerful writing. Wolitzer has written a carefully crafted description of mental illness; your heart will be in your throat while reading about Jam and her classmates – what they went through, how they are coping (or not) and the ways they are healing (or not). Wolitzer has also written a paean to words and to reading and to what books and poetry can do to bridge the gaps between us and our fellow humans. It is not going too far to say that the author considers the written word to be a life-saver.

With such powerful writing and a clever conceit (troubled teens studying Plath and traveling to a place whose name is a play on her most famous work) it would not be surprising at all for Belzhar to get some Printz love.

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