Meg Wolitzer
Published September 30, 2014
266 pages (hardcover)

One of the first books I reviewed for this blog was Meg Wolitzer’s 2013 bestseller The Interestings. It’s about a group of six unique and flawed friends who meet at a hippie-dippy summer camp for artsy teens called Spirit-in-the-Woods. The book follows their relationships (which, in some cases grow, and in others devolve) from 1974 to 2011.

The Interestings was a big hit. It was named a best book of the year by TIME Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Entertainment Weekly. The Washington Post and The New York Times Book Review named it a notable book in 2013.

So, it’s perhaps not a huge surprise that Wolitzer decided to stay the course with her next novel, Belzhar.

Belzhar is notably different from The Interestings in two ways:

  1. It’s a YA novel; and
  2. It is a scant 266 pages (compared to The Interestings’ unbearably long 560 pages).

But in many ways, the books’ premises are similar. Instead of Spirit-in-the-Woods, the hippie-dippy summer camp for artsy teens, you have The Wooden Barn, a hippie-dippy boarding school for frail but highly intelligent teens. Instead of six unique and flawed friends who meet at camp, you have five unique and flawed friends who meet in class. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

Jamaica “Jam” Gallahue is new to The Wooden Barn. She has recently experienced the joys of her first love followed by an unspeakable tragedy. Despite her parents’ and friends’ pleas for her to rejoin the land of the living (and twice-weekly counseling sessions), Jam can’t shake her feelings of despair. She feels like she can’t keep going to school and living her life as if nothing happened. In a last-ditch effort to help get Jam through this tragedy, her parents decide to send her to The Wooden Barn, a therapeutic school in Vermont that specializes in helping kids who have been through tough times.

Upon her arrival, Jam finds out that she has been selected for a highly mysterious and sought-after class: Special Topics in English with Mrs. Quenell. The class focuses solely on one writer and has only a handful of students. This semester, the class is comprised of Jam and four other damaged students: Marc, an all-American guy who used to be president of his class and captain of his debate team; Griffin, a sullen, hoodie-wearing kid whose parents own a goat-cheese farm about a mile from the school; Casey, a rich girl from NYC, who has recently had an accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down; and Sierra, a beautiful dancer from Washington, D.C. Together, they will be studying the works of Sylvia Plath.

On the first day of class, Mrs. Q gives each student a red, leather-bound journal. They are instructed to write in the journal twice a week. The journals, it turns out, are transportive—literally. Inexplicably, they allow the students to experience their lives during happier times. The students grow closer as they share their experiences—the happy journal times and the tragic real events their journals allow them to avoid and forget.

Rating: 3/5

This book suffers from a few common YA pitfalls:

  • It has a tendency to be a little too condescending to its audience. Some plot points are explained too much or repeated unnecessarily, while others are glossed over entirely. And, in many instances, it feels like Wolitzer is a cheesy, out-of-touch middle-school guidance counselor, assuring you that: “Young people’s feelings are valid, too!” This is Wolitzer’s first YA novel, and it feels like she doesn’t have sufficient confidence in her new audience.
  • Wolitzer was striving a little too hard for diversity (you have DJ Kawabata, Jam’s half-Asian, half-Jewish roommate who has “certain food issues” and Sierra, the black girl in Jam’s class “who, when she walks down the street in a city, people from modeling agencies probably come up to her and hand her their business cards” and Casey, the newly wheelchair-bound girl in Jam’s class). Look at all the interesting characters—surely there is someone with whom you can relate! Unfortunately, the characters often come across as forced, inauthentic, and even, in some cases, stereotypical.
  • There’s a twist at the end. With the recent success of twisty books like Gone Girl, you really can’t blame an author for wanting to up the excitement ante. Books with twists are popular and hyped! But a twist ending is becoming a bit of a cliché, and this one feels a little too much like We Were Liars.

But don’t get me wrong—it’s not all bad. The book is breezy; it takes a couple hours to read. The characters, although deeply flawed (and occasionally too stereotypical and superficial) are sympathetic. And, most importantly, the themes (especially in light of the audience) are strong and significant: the importance of support and encouragement; the power of books, words, and voice; and the necessity of grief, acknowledgement, and acceptance to overcome pain.

The hype:

  • Entertainment Weekly’s Best YA Book of 2014
  • Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2014
  • TIME Magazine Top YA of 2014
  • NPR’s Book Concierge 2014 Great Reads List

Who should read it: Rachel (i.e., people who read and enjoyed We Were Liars); Erin (i.e., people who would enjoy this book for its themes and subject matter).

Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:

  • Bird Box by Josh Malerman (a LibraryReads List selection for May 2014)

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