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BELZHAR is a haunting, emotional journey through loss and closure as experienced through the eyes of Jamaica (“Jam,” for short), a teenage girl who lost her boyfriend and has been admitted to The Wooden Barn to deal with her emotional frailty. Located in the green mountains of Vermont, The Wooden Barn is half school-half emotional rehab for teens struggling with disorders, grief or behavioral issues. On the first day of classes, Jam finds she has been accepted to Special Topics in English, an elite and highly coveted class taught by the elderly Mrs. Quenell.  Her classmates have been handpicked and include graceful Sierra, sullen Griffin, orderly Marc, and wheelchair-confined Casey.  If you’re reminded of The Breakfast Club by now, you’re not far off, though the events that bring these “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” characters together are far darker than high school detentions.

On the first day of class, Mrs. Quenell tells the students they will read only one book all semester: Sylvia Plath’s THE BELL JAR (hence the title). She also offers each student a beautiful, leather-bound journal and instructs them to write in it twice a week, explaining that she will collect the journals at the end of the year, but will not read them. The teens are clearly confused by their assignment, but are even more puzzled by Mrs. Quenell’s final instruction: that the students look out for one another.

As Jam settles into her new life at The Wooden Barn, she often flashes back to memories of her boyfriend, Reeve. He was a handsome British exchange student at Jam’s high school and, for 41 days, Jam was head over heels in love, until Reeve died. Though she’s still devastated, she finds that Special Topics, as well as learning about her new peers, is creating a nice distraction that keeps her functioning more normally. One night she decides to try to write in her journal, choosing for a topic the only thing she can really think about: Reeve. She writes “Reeve Maxfield was the person I’d been waiting to meet since I was born, but of course I didn’t know it.” Before she can write the next sentence she feels Reeve’s arms around her, and, when she turns around, his sleepy eyes and rumpled brown hair are there --- and real. It seems that writing in the journal has somehow transported her to a place where she can Reeve can be reunited.  As the sky darkens in their otherworld, however, their time comes to an end and Jam finds herself just where she started, with one marked difference: five pages of her journal have been filled in by her own hand.

The mystery behind Belzhar, never fully explained, adds just the right amount of supernatural to the very real stories of grief.

Throughout the next week it seems that all of the students in Mrs. Quenell’s class have been affected by something: Sierra has night terrors, Marc seems exhausted and Casey’s mood shifts dramatically.  Finally it seems Jam will have to confess about her meetings with Reeve --- but she is not alone. Her other classmates have all been transported to the same mystical place where they can live as they did before tragedy ruined them and brought them to The Wooden Barn. Terrified of being caught and deemed insane, the group devises a list of rules for visiting the mysterious place they come to call Belzhar: 1) they may only visit twice a week, on assigned days, and 2) They must meet once a week to discuss their findings and feelings.  This plan works, for a time, but Jam begins to find herself dissatisfied with the Reeve of Belzhar. He is very one-dimensional and as part of the mysterious rules of Belzhar, they can only do things they have already done in the real world, leaving no room for their relationship to grow.

Outside of Belzhar, however, Jam is creating real friendships with her peers, and even developing feelings for one of her fellow Special Topics classmates, Griffin. Meanwhile, the pages of their journals are all running out and the class must wonder how the semester --- and their newly regained peace --- will end. Wolitzer really packs on the suspense as the semester ends, leading to a shocking twist about Jam’s story that will completely stun any reader.

Wolitzer has done a remarkable job of creating five individual characters suffering from five distinct kinds of loss. Though Jam’s was clearly the focus, the other characters’ backgrounds are no less intense, and Sierra’s was perhaps the most compelling of them all. As a reader, I loved how believable and genuine the characters seemed. Though they could be witty and snarky, it never felt forced and still made me laugh. The mystery behind Belzhar, never fully explained, adds just the right amount of supernatural to the very real stories of grief.  Overall, BELZHAR was probably one of the best novels I’ve read this year.  Just like the characters noted, I know BELZHAR will stay with me for a very long time.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on October 1, 2014

by Meg Wolitzer

  • Publication Date: September 30, 2014
  • Genres: Fantasy, Fiction
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Dutton Juvenile
  • ISBN-10: 0525423052
  • ISBN-13: 9780525423058