Amanda Reads: Not Sure I Can Even Talk about Belzhar

Last night after I got home from work, I spent the rest of my night finding excuses to keep listening to my audiobook, Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar. I went for an hour long walk and did a bunch of chores just so that I could keep listening–eventually, I just sat on the couch letting the words wash over me. Now, I want to impress upon you all how unusual this behavior is for me–usually, I can’t stand to just sit and listen to an audiobook. I’ve got to be in motion. But this story swallowed me whole and I marathoned it from around 4:30-9:00, until I had consumed the entire thing.

First, a little tiny bit of background. Belzhar is a young adult novel in which a young women, Jam (short for Jamaica) ends up at a school called The Wooden Barn that houses “emotionally fragile” youth. She finds out that she’s been drafted for a “special topics in Engish” course, where the students read the work of one author for the entire year–this year, that author is Sylvia Plath, and Belzhar is a twist on The Bell Jar. The students are given special journals to write in, and they quickly learn that they’re transported into a sort of other world inside their minds whenever they write in them. In this world, their lives are “undamaged,” existing in a space before whatever traumatic event landed them in The Wooden Barn.
Artemis and I stare into my journal, pondering what our own Belzhars would look like.
Artemis and I stare into my journal, pondering what our own Belzhars would look like.

Pretty weird, right? It was that premise alone (along with, of course, the nod to The Bell Jar) that convinced me to give the book a try. When I saw that I could download the audiobook from Overdrive without a wait, I knew it would be my next read. I was not even remotely prepared for the serious mind f@*k-ery that took place near the end of the novel, however.

I’ll be honest–I wasn’t sure, at first, that I was going to like the book. Jam, whose boyfriend, we immediately learn, has died, spends an almost New Moon reminiscent amount of time being obsessively sad about losing Reeve, and it frankly starts to get a bit old fast. Not to downplay the trauma of having a loved one die, even if it is your boyfriend of 41 days, but it’s kind of tiresome to read (or listen to) the constant whining of a teenage girl who just can’t live without a guy she’s known for such a short period of time. However, I was curious enough about the journals and the characters that Wolitzer created that I wanted to finish the book–like immediately. There was a nice diverse cast of characters and traumatic events that were really interesting to hear unfold as each character becomes comfortable enough to tell his or her story.

I won’t say much about the mind f*#k moment because I don’t want to spoil it–I truly was not expecting what happened, and I want that same reading experience for anyone who decides to pick up this book. I legitimately got up off the couch and paced around, waving my arms and saying various profanities in shock and awe for probably a good half hour. My twitter followers will note tweets like “This book. Oh my god, this book.”

Do I recommend this one? Oh hell yes! Even though I’m still not ultimately sure that I can understand the massiveness of Jam’s grief or what the message behind her experience is, I know that I really enjoyed this book, and that it completely surprised (and emotionally devastated) me at the end. Mostly, I just really want everyone on the planet to read it so that we can discuss the thing that happens together; my brain might actually implode otherwise.

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