”Belzhar,” by Meg Wolitzer (Dutton Juvenile)
Meg Wolitzer’s 2013 bestseller, “The Interestings,” featured a group of precocious teenagers who met at summer camp in 1974. Wolitzer’s gift for capturing youthful exuberance and insecurity in that book suggested that she’d also be a natural at writing a young-adult novel.
“Belzhar,” her first work aimed at a younger audience, is narrated by 15-year-old Jam Gallahue. For almost a year, she has been inconsolable over the death of her boyfriend, Reeve, an English exchange student. When the story opens, Jam has just arrived the Wooden Barn, a boarding school in rural Vermont that’s “sort of a halfway house between a hospital and a regular school. It’s like a big lily pad where you can linger before you have to make the frog-leap back to ordinary life.”
The school eschews drugs for treating depression or other mental illnesses. Internet and cellphones are banned. Instead, Jam and four other students are subjected to what might be called the Plath Method. They’re chosen for a class called Special Topics in English, whose elderly teacher assigns just one book a semester. This time, it’s Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar.” She also gives each student a red leather journal. Their homework: Read Plath’s novel and write in the journal twice a week.
Sound like an easy A? It turns out to be a wrenching, complicated experience. As the weeks pass, Jam and her friends discover something unnerving. The process of reading Plath and reliving their own traumas by writing them down transports them to an eerie, magical way station, a place they call Belzhar (pronounced “bell jar”). In Belzhar, Jam and her classmates find that their lives are frozen in eternal replay mode: Each relives the moments leading up to his or her trauma, but it’s an unending “before” with no “after.”
This metaphor for the grieving process makes for an uneasy amalgam of teen angst and the supernatural. Wolitzer’s first novel, “Sleepwalking,” written more than 30 years ago when Wolitzer was a college student, also deals with young people obsessed with Sylvia Plath. The teenagers in “Belzhar” seem to have been magically transported from that period to 2014. They don’t speak or interact much like contemporary adolescents. Reeve is the most egregious example, spouting lines from ancient Monty Python routines. And the perfunctory references to “The Bell Jar” seem more like canned fodder for a book group Reader’s Guide than an attempt to illuminate Plath’s life and work.
Still, Wolitzer works her own dark magic toward the end of her tale, when, as the semester draws to a close, the five friends are forced to choose between remaining in Belzhar or resuming their lives. As Jam confronts the truth about Reeve’s death, these last few chapters rewrite everything the reader knows about her — and what Jam knows about herself. And, despite its flaws, “Belzhar” finally demonstrates the power of words to heal.
By Meg Wolitzer
Dutton. 266 pp. $17.99. Ages 14 and up
Originally published on WashingtonPost.com