Released in September of 2014, Meg Wolitzer’s novel Belzhar snatched my attention for its plot and author of interest: misfit teenagers mysteriously enrolled in a special topics English course dedicated to the study of Sylvia Plath, her poetry, and her only novel, The Bell Jar. I have a special interest in these novels whether they are fictional or not. There’s something about them that just makes me gravitate toward them that I haven’t been able to figure out why. The piqued interest of a person and their fascination with an author’s work remains my favorite subject to read, even more so when the author’s work is ubiquitously consuming that person’s thoughts.
Belzhar appealed to me because it seemed like it was going to be one of these books, and it’s not as though this subject matter is new terrain for Wolizter. In her debut novel Sleepwalking, Wolitzer tells the story of a young woman in college obsessed with the recently deceased poet, Lucy Ascher, a fictional poet in real life for those about to Google her. The prose mediates the depth of melancholy, alienation, and social aversion respectively without belying the experience. It’s too bad Belzhar does not do the same. To an extent, the world of Belzhar is nothing new to us. We commonly look for ways to escape when the real world is overwhelming and unbearable. Wolitzer tries to piggyback on the symbols and metaphors found in Plath’s The Bell Jar, but Belzhar has little to do with Sylvia Plath, her poems, or Plath’s novel, thus, losing some of the nuance.
After the death of her British boyfriend, Jam is sent to Vermont to a school known as the Wooden Barn, which is a special, therapeutic school designed to help young adults struggling with trauma and/or mental illness. Jam discovers she has been enrolled in an English Special topics class, a class that selectively chooses only a handful of students to enroll. When Jam arrives in class, the teacher, Mrs. Quenell, informs them that they will be studying Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and she provides each of the students with red, leather bound journals to write in throughout the semester. Mrs. Quenell asks that each of the students write in them, adding she will not read them when they submit them at the end of the semester. None of them are thrilled with this idea; however, when Jam opens her journal and starts to write, something happens, and she’s suddenly transported into a world where her British boyfriend is alive [and horny apparently.] The other students experience a similar effect, and they start to learn that these journals are imbued with a special magic that allows them to revisit events prior to what triggered/caused their traumatic episode, dubbing this special world, Belzhar. The only catch? What happens when they fill up the journal? What happens then?
The supernatural element of the story influences the plot’s trajectory by focusing on the tragic past of the characters, literally having them replay the events that transpired. The enigma of Belzhar, although playful and absorbing, consumes most of the novel’s scope. Unsurprisingly the characters would rather live in the past and be lost in a knowing and expectant world because they can find solace and relief there; they can be with their loved ones, have the use of their legs, be somewhere easier. They aren’t damaged goods in Belzhar. I do have a hard time believing that their damaged though. A chapter, or sometimes a passage, reveals the extent of each person’s trauma. The problem I find is that these issues, the internal conflicts of the characters, seem to take care of themselves as if this is a natural progression; no work necessary. The extent of their psychological damage is unconvincing, making for an inchoate story.
The characters come off as banal and too literal. The protagonist, Jam, is both depressed and embarrassed that her reason for landing in this school is because of a boy. Wolitzer fully acknowledges Jam’s position being one of the most typical girl/boy conventions. Jam admits how stupid it is to be grieving over her dead boyfriend that she only knew for a short while. This is suppose to make it better. I can give Wolitzer some lenity but not completely, not when we read Jam spending a majority of her time with her dead boyfriend and then with her new boyfriend. I scoffed.
Although Jam is finding her place in the real world, essentially moving on, it’s hard to determine what triggered this radical transformation. Her other classmates in special topics are the same way. Once Belzhar comes to a close, they are well-composed and accepting of the situation. It’s not only unbelievable but delusional. If nothing else, the writing of these characters greatly belittles the long term effects of trauma and curtails the recovery process.
Belzhar is without meat; the writing is nearly skeletal and is supplemented with easier, terse prose that is inferior to Wolitzer’s previous works. In many ways, the story’s content feels airy and cushioned, a bemusement to anyone who’s read The Bell Jar and/or who’s experienced tragedy or severe, emotional pain. Wolitzer, as I stated earlier, has a prolific and poetic writing style, but in Belzhar, it’s nonexistent. The writing presently is adequate, represented in how the characters are written, how the school is written, and how the story “nicely” concludes.
When I say “nicely, ”everyone has a happy ending. It wasn’t that this happy ending was out of reach; it’s an inarguable ending. With the exception of Jam’s story, which was by far the most interesting twist and was actually my favorite part of the novel, there’s a difference in having closure and finding closure: having comes after finding it. I don’t think that’s complicated. Wolitzer has reversed it, however. She has made self-love and acceptance easy.
I’m not against having a happy ending, even if some of my previous reviews suggest that I am. I want some of these characters to find closure. I do. The problem I find with Belzhar is how it suggests that the world is suddenly different when you are different, as if there’s a symbiotic relationship, that your change affects the world. But the world hasn’t changed, only your perception of it, and staying happy on a bad day is tricky.
The characters relived their glorious moments and their worst moments. But then what? Families are still irreparable and farm animals still dead. One character will never walk again. Certainly these characters can overcome them but not easily and not by reliving and escaping to those moments stored in our heads. Belzhar is a band-aid; real closure is found and is an ongoing process, whether you’re a young adult, in your 30s, or sixty five years old.
Rating: 3 out of 5