Why a young adult novel following the success of The Interestings? That was my one question to the author as I stepped up to have my advance copy of Belzhar signed at Book Expo this summer. “I was inspired by John Green’s Looking for Alaska,” she said, not offering further explanation, obviously knowing that I would now tear into Belzhar the moment I got home and not stop reading until I discovered what, exactly, she meant. I was not disappointed to find that Belzhar delves into the difficult territory of teenaged mental illness and grief. The novel is also fueled by the budding beauty of young humans finding themselves through relationships with others.
Jamaica “Jam” Gallahue’s story begins where many teen protagonists’ stories end–with the death of a boyfriend. Reeve Maxfield was a formidable first love. Cool, quirkily handsome, wryly funny, tender, and British: “There was a scrape to his voice. And though I don’t have any idea what people thought of him back in London, where that kind of accent is ordinary, to me his voice sounded like a lit match being held to the edge of a piece of brittle paper. It just exploded in a quiet burst. When he spoke I wanted to listen.” Jam’s loss is so devastating that she does not even approach an explanation of Reeve’s death in the early pages of her story. One day, Jam and Reeve were cocooned in the warmth of first love, and the next day he was wrenched away, plunging Jam into an impenetrable grief.
Jam shuts down so completely after losing Reeve that her parents send her to The Wooden Barn, a private school in Vermont, “which is described in the brochure as a boarding school for ‘emotionally fragile, highly intelligent’ teenagers… ‘Seriously unhinged’ doesn’t get admitted to The Wooden Barn. This place isn’t a hospital, and they make a big point of how they’re against giving out psychiatric medication. Instead, they insist that the school experience is meant to bring people together and help them heal.”
In the first days at The Wooden Barn, Jam meets DJ, her wildly energetic, punctual, and bulimic roommate. Jam also discovers that she’s been assigned to a class called Special Topics in English. “First of all,” DJ explains enviously, “this is a legendary class. The person who teaches it, Mrs. Quennell, only teaches it when she wants to… almost nobody gets accepted into the class… This summer I even wrote a special sucking-up note to her… I said that when I got into college I wanted to be an English major, and that ‘if I was lucky enough to be accepted into Special Topics, it would surely send me on my way.’ I actually used those ass-kissing words. But they didn’t work.”
Jam is mystified as to her own qualifications for Special Topics. She has only four other classmates: Griffin, a Vermont skater; Casey, the wealthy daughter of a New York City corporate player and a freewheeling socialite; Sierra, a dancer; and Marc, a tidy, science-oriented guy. No brilliant writers or literature scholars. Presumably, they are all “fragile,” as Jam is, but so is every other student at The Wooden Barn. Even more mystifying, why does Mrs. Quennell assign, for the group’s sole semester-long study, the life and works of Sylvia Plath, who is arguably just as famous for her brilliant writing as for killing herself after a long emotional struggle?
Special Topics also requires writing: twice a week, in antique red leather journals that Mrs. Quennell distributes. “And there’s something else I require for this course. Though I don’t like to put it like that. It’s something that I would like to ask you to do, human being to human being. Which is that you all look out for one another.”
Jam is impressed by Mrs. Quennell’s bold choice of curriculum. “Marc is right; suicide has to be a touchy issue here. A lot of students at The Wooden Barn are probably depressed. But it’s almost as if Mrs. Quennell was going right for the gut by picking Sylvia Plath.” Other than that, Special Topics sounds like a pretty typical English-class-for-“fragile”-teens.
Everything changes dramatically when Jam and her classmates begin writing in their journals. Twice a week, for the space and time of five written pages–which, as any writer can attest, might mean the blink of an eye, or an infinity–Jam slips into a time and place where Reeve never died, and their love can never end. The Special Topics students code-name this unchanging place, which is different for each of them, Belzhar. They join forces to discover whether this is a place that exists only in one’s heads, or into which one might truly disappear forever. And if I could, each one wonders, would I?
It’s a big, big premise. I think I held my breath through most of the novel, hoping that Wolitzer would pull it off, and I think she did a pretty good job, in a simply told story that somehow draws on themes of family tragedy, physical handicap, bullying, and the simple yet lasting hurt of hardened hearts to appeal to a broad readership. Her prose is clean, often inventive, and sometimes quite funny. DJ’s girlfriend, Rebecca, gets pulled out of The Wooden Barn when her mother discovers Rebecca’s homosexuality. Rebecca responds by threatening to tell her mother’s friends that she is a proud member of the LGBTQ community, but the threat doesn’t have quite the effect Rebecca intends, at first. “But of course she was like, L-G-what? So I had to explain what LGBTQ meant in order to get her flipped out to let me come back.”
Wolitzer could have gone far, far deeper into her characters’ individual journeys. Mrs. Quennell seems especially marginalized, leaving me feeling that a significant facet of Belzhar remains hidden. I came away from the novel feeling somewhat hungry for more, but relishing the impressions left by the story—a bit more as if I’d immersed myself in a particularly fascinating series of blog posts, rather than a full novel. Either way, Belzhar is a good story, well-told, offering a wonderful new perspective on re-examining life’s deepest hurts.