Book review: Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 November, 2014, 11:11pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 November, 2014, 11:11pm

by Meg Wolitzer

Meg Wolitzer's fiction has attracted many superlatives over the past three decades. Last year's The Interestings prompted The New York Times' reviewer to place the novel "in the ranks of books like Jonathan Franzen's Freedom and Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot".

Wolitzer specialises in women and their densely tangled relationships with their friends and mothers and their sometimes tortured paths into adulthood. In Belzhar, her first foray into young adult fiction, Wolitzer's narrator and ringleader is a girl called Jam (short for Jamaica) Gallahue.

Jam is one of five teenage protagonists attending the Wooden Barn, a New England boarding school for "emotionally fragile, highly intelligent students", who meet in a class called "Special Topics in English". On the first day, their teacher announces they will read The Bell Jar and other works by Sylvia Plath, surprising choices for those who are easily bruised. Jam, we learn at the start, has shut down after the death of her boyfriend. Jam shares only superficial details about the relationship, but the reader is allowed to relive parts of her romance with Reeve Maxwell as she imagines their moments together.

Jam's classmates include Griffin, good-looking "but in a hostile way"; Sierra, an African-American girl who looks model perfect; Marc, president of the student council and captain of the debate team; and Casey, new to a wheelchair. They gradually share their stories of pain.

These five teenagers become a unit, allied in the exploration of their inner lives. They grow in emotional maturity, groping their way to defining, and sometimes conquering, their grief.

Inspirational? Perhaps. But the five friends do for the most part seem to find the path back to emotional good health in a manner that might be construed as convenient. Their sullenness begins to fade, their delusions recede, their confidence grows. If only we could send all of our surly, freaked-out adolescents to Belzhar for that moderately happy ending.

Los Angeles Times