lip lit: belzhar
Meg Wolitzer’s young adult novel Belzhar is the story of teenagers who have experienced traumatic events. Jam is sixteen and heart-broken. She can’t move on from the death of her boyfriend of forty-one days, English exchange student, Reeve. In an attempt to get her functioning again, her parents send her to boarding school The Wooden Barn, a school for traumatised teens.
Jam gets picked for a class called Special Topics in English. The teacher, Mrs. Quenell, hand picks four or five students each year to join the class, and they spend the entire semester studying one writer. Mrs. Quenell assigns Jam’s class the writer Sylvia Plath, and also gives each student a journal and asks that they each write in the journal twice a week. In this class, Jam discovers the world of Belzhar, and uncovers a way to confront her grief.
As Jam and her classmates study the writings of Sylvia Plath throughout the semester, Belzhar draws connections with Plath’s writings, in particular her novel The Bell Jar. Plath was an American writer born in 1932, who committed suicide in 1963. The Bell Jar is a fictional work which is inspired by events which transpired in Plath’s own life, and is the journey of a young woman, Esther Greenwood, who spirals into depression as she is pigeon-holed into a life as a housewife and forced to give up her own independence, and self. Esther likens these periods of depression to being trapped beneath a bell jar. Similarly, Jam and her classmates are trapped beneath their own bell jars, and through writing in their journals, they start to find a way out of their cages.
From the beginning, this book has its flaws. It feels like Wolitzer is in a rush to explain certain things to the reader, and early on in the book chunks of information are thrown into dialogue instead of being revealed through Jam’s experiences. For example, her roommate, DJ, is jealous that Jam has been hand-picked for the Special Topics in English class. She subsequently launches into a lecture about the history of the class, what the class will entail and how many students get picked for it. This occurs in the very first chapter, and it feels like an unnecessary information dump on the reader.
The book lacks subtlety throughout; everything is spelled out. There are instances where a character does or says something, and the subtext of these actions and words is pretty clear. Even so, Wolitzer feels the need to take it one step further and directly spell out the subtext. For example, in the following exchange:
Sierra studies me, as if trying to figure out whether it’s okay to talk to me or not. Then she says, “Have you ever had an experience that made no sense?”
“I’m not sure.”
“I mean an experience that’s so surreal that if you told anyone they’d be like, ‘What the hell is wrong with her?’”
All I say is, “Could you say more?”
“Never mind,” she says. “It doesn’t matter.” She picks up her backpack, looping it over her arms, and turns away, done with me. She’d tried to see if I was a kindred spirit, and apparently I’m not. I was put to a test, and I’d failed it.
There are instances like this throughout the book, to the point where it is frustrating that nothing is left for the reader to interpret on their own. While this lack of subtlety could be due to the fact the book is a YA novel and therefore aimed at a young audience, this aspect of Wolitzer’s writing really drew me out of the story. It feels overdone even when compared to the rest of the genre.
While the plot and the storyline were intriguing enough to make me want to keep reading, by the end of the book, more cracks appeared. It is difficult to know who Jam really is as a character. Throughout the book, she is completely tied to her forty-one day relationship with the exchange student. As she rediscovers herself it would have been nice to get a glimpse of who Jam was before having a relationship. For this reason, the twist at the end of the novel falls flat and feels like a betrayal to the reader.
Overall, Belzhar is an imaginative book page-turning plot, but there are flaws in the writing and characterisation which will hold the novel back from the bestseller lists.