Share 'Belzhar' With the YA in Your Life, But Enjoy It Yourself, Too
Jam Gallahue and her English classmates are given journals to keep. But when they begin writing, something strange happens.
Length: 272 pages
Author: Meg Wolitzer
Publication date: 2014-09
I flinched when Belzhar, Meg Wolitzer’s foray into the young adult novel, landed in my mailbox. Until now I’ve avoided the furious debate over adults reading YA books by, well, not reading them.
I thought my years as a YA reader were long behind me. An introverted child, I spent untold hours on the “good” living room couch, deep in books by Lois Duncan, Judie Angell, S.E. Hinton, and Zoa Sherburne. By about age 11 I’d transitioned to adult authors. I didn’t always understand what I was reading, but in summertime, it was no longer Tuffy.
Though I remain uncertain about adults reading books intended for younger readers, I’m sold on reading anything written by Meg Wolitzer. Somewhere between Surrender, Dorothy (1999), and The Wife (2003), something changed.
Perhaps the devil tuned Wolitzer’s laptop at the crossroads. Or a magic acorn bonked her on the head during a meditative stroll at Yaddo. But most likely, all those years at the desk, a lifelong apprenticeship with words, finally paid off, and Wolitzer went from being a fine mid-list writer to a great writer, one of the very few in an elite firmament. And great writers can write lawnmower instruction manuals with verve and excitement. Even people lacking lawnmowers, or even lawns, will find that manual riveting.
Jam Gallahue, 15, is in love with Reeve Maxfield, an English exchange student. Everything about Reeve is deliciously different: his accent, his clothing, his pallor. His fondness for Monty Python Skits. The way he calls soccer “football”. The way he calls football “brilliant”.
When Reeve dies, Jam is bereft. The novel opens as her kindly but despairing parents are dropping her off at the Wooden Barn.
The Wooden Barn is a residential school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent teenagers”. Social media is limited to a hallway pay phone. Medication is frowned upon. Instead, Jam is placed with roommate D.J., an Asian/Jewish Floridian with “food issues”.
It is D.J. who discovers Jam’s been selected for a coveted spot in Special Topics in English with teacher Veronica Quenell. D.J.’s envious awe is met with indifference. Jam neither knows nor cares about the class. She’s too deeply in mourning for Reeve.
Wolitzer, the parent of two grown sons, nails the inner workings of a teenaged mind. Her Jam—a diminutive of Jamaica—is a good girl who easily negotiates the line of being just good enough without being sappy. She enjoys Saturday nights watching movies with her parents and younger brother, Leo. She loves sleepovers with best friends Hanna and Jenna. Pot and liquor don’t faze her, even if she doesn’t partake.
Yet Reeve Maxfield’s appearance in her life changes everything. Although the couple is chastely innocent, Jam describes an idyllic mind-meld, the kind occurring only with youthful first love. Jam’s perfect happiness lasts only 41 days.
It is D.J. who hauls Jam from bed, forces her to eat, dress, and get to Special Topics on time. There, Veronica Quenell announces this will be her final semester teaching. The class of five will study Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, some of Plath’s poetry, and be required to keep a journal. Mrs. Quenell hands each student a red leather-bound journal, an old object. She’ll collect them in December. But she won’t read them.
The Uncoupling’s drama teacher, Fran Heller, also carried otherworldly powers, though she used them to arguably less therapeutic ends. Veronica Quenell intends to lead her charges back to mental health. They’ll read the incredible book Plath wrought of her devastating breakdown in the summer of 1953. Portions of Ariel will be assigned. And via their journals, they’ll travel to a place Jam calls Belzhar.
Belzhar, a riff on “Bell Jar”, is accessed by writing in the journal. Each Belzhar is unique to the writer, a place where time has frozen just before whatever trauma brought that individual to the Wooden Barn. Jam’s Belzhar is a field, where Reeve waits eagerly for her. These visits are painfully short. Recalling them, Jam always returns to her bed, her journal in her lap, several pages taken up with scribbling.
As Belzhar unfolds, the Special Topic class becomes close, meeting regularly in an empty classroom. The reader learns what happened to Casey, Marc, and Sierra. Griffin, always buried in an oversized hoodie, reveals little. Jam, who finds discussing Reeve unbearable, offers even less. Outside the classroom, D.J. provides clear-eyed support, even as she struggles to overcome binge eating. When she falls for a fellow student named Rebecca, Jam returns the support in kind, with unquestioning acceptance.
As the semester progresses, Jam’s apathy slowly lifts. She gradually becomes more interested in her classmates, especially Sierra and Griffin, whose sullen exterior hides a sensitive, caring boy. Forced to take up an outside activity, Jam grudgingly joins the Barntones, an a capella group. To her surprise, she enjoys it.
But in Belzhar, Reeve is unchanging. When Jam tries talking about her life outside, he is oddly indifferent. She soon realizes that time has frozen inside Belzhar; anything happening outside their 41 days together is unreal to Reeve. Jam stops pushing. Yet it isn’t easy letting go.
As December approaches, the class realizes the end of the notebooks signifies the end of visits to Belzhar. Each must face the events that brought them to the Wooden Barn. And Jam must finally come to terms with painful truths about Reeve and true circumstances of his death.
Wolitzer presents the difficulties of first love with compassion and generosity. Through Jam, she shows readers that one can suffer a great trauma and recover, becoming more mature and resilient in the process.
Wolitzer is to be further commended for making an argument for great literature—here, Sylvia Plath—to younger readers. Belzhar is a lovely book that manages to transcend age labeling. Share it with the YA in your life. But be sure to enjoy it yourself, too.