Friday, October 24, 2014

Belzhar, by Meg Wolitzer

What if you wanted something so badly, you actually convinced yourself it was reality? Meg Wolitzer explores this in her addicting novel Belzhar.

After her boyfriend, Reeve, died, Jam was her parents sent her to The Wooden Barn, a boarding school in Vermont that's sort of a halfway house for emotionally damaged teens who aren't crazy enough for the psych ward (but are too fragile to mix with regular society). Jam obviously doesn't want to be there. She wants to be with Reeve. But Reeve is dead, and they can never be together again.

Or can they?

Jam is stunned when she is one of five students selected for Special Topics English, taught by the mysterious Mrs. Quenell. Everyone who has ever taken the class has claimed it changed their lives, but have remained secretive about the details. So Jam goes, not knowing what to expect.

What happens as a result of this exclusive membership is she and the other Special Topics students are allowed limited entry into the magical world they dub "Belzhar." This is a place they can go where the terrible thing that happened to them, the terrible thing that put them in The Wooden Barn, never happened and life is as it should be. For Jam, this means she can be with Reeve again. But she soon discovers they can only relive past memories. They can't create any new experiences. And she can never stay for very long. But this is enough for her.

As Jam and her classmates approach their last visit to Belzhar, they learn the truth about the place: That Belzhar gives them what they want to see...but it also reveals the truth about their trauma, the parts they blocked out the first time around. That during their final visit, they must re-live every sordid and terrible detail of the worst experience of their lives. This means Jam must re-live Reeve's death and face the awful, psyche-scarring truth about what really happened that day.

I wasn't really sure what to expect from Belzhar. I'd picked it up because I'd read a fabulous review that revealed just enough to spark my curiosity...but didn't give it all away. And it was good. Very, very good. Unusual, but very good...and I kept reading. I wanted to know what happened as much as the characters did.

Yes, there was a bit of a twist at the end (no spoilers). Not one that put my jaw in my lap, but still one that surprised me and changed the way I felt about Jam. Previous to the twist, I had felt a twinge of sympathy for her, certainly, but that was it. After all, she seemed to be getting better. Then the twist...and I realized how sick and twisted she really was. Far beyond what I first believed. 

Confused? Curious? 

Read the book. --AJB

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