Tuesday, December 23, 2014

"Belzhar" by Meg Wolitzer

When I saw the author of "The Interestings" was releasing a new YA book, I was quick to add my name to the long wait list for "Belzhar" on Overdrive. It's an entertaining and moving piece of fiction, but unfortunately, it didn't stand up to Meg Wolitzer's adult work.

Jam is at the Wooden Barn, a special school for students who have experienced trauma, after the loss of her boyfriend. She winds up in "Special Topics in English" with four other students for a semester-long exploration of the work of Sylvia Plath. Soon these five students are experiencing strange things while completing their school work. This proves to be both exactly what they need, and what may prevent them from moving on from their traumatic experiences.

I loved "The Interestings" for how well it captured the complexity of relationships as we grow older - how people grow together and grow apart, how group dynamics shift over time, how changes in our individual personalities can shape our relationships with others. "Belzhar" purported to be about a group of adolescent students navigating impossible loss, but lacked the depth of relationship exploration that made "The Interestings" so vivid. The strengths of "Belzhar" lie in its exploration of loss at a young age and how different people process different types of loss.

This strength leads to my next complaint - the book's twist, while not unexpected, greatly shifts the theme of the book away from loss. The rest of novel is spent driving home this new theme around writing. I do think that my figuring out the twist early on speaks to how carefully Wolitzer constructed the book. The hints are there from the beginning, if you look, and it ensures that the twist isn't just a plot device to make you gasp. But while the plot elements were there, the thematic elements weren't. The book's abrupt thematic shift wasn't predicated on any hints that writing was important, so the ending felt disjointed and overwhelming.

Verdict: Jury's out - it's predominantly a good book, but the ending cheapened the power of its thematic exploration of how we cope with loss.

"Belzhar" by Meg Wolitzer, narrated by Jojeana Marie. Audio published by Listening Library on October 14, 2014.

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