Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
If life were fair, Jam Gallahue would still be at home in New Jersey with her sweet British boyfriend, Reeve Maxfield. She’d be watching old comedy sketches with him. She’d be kissing him in the library stacks.
She certainly wouldn’t be at The Wooden Barn, a therapeutic boarding school in rural Vermont, living with a weird roommate, and signed up for an exclusive, mysterious class called Special Topics in English.
But life isn’t fair, and Reeve Maxfield is dead.
Until a journal-writing assignment leads Jam to Belzhar, where the untainted past is restored, and Jam can feel Reeve’s arms around her once again. But there are hidden truths on Jam’s path to reclaim her loss.
The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Belzhar is how irresponsible the plot, characters, and handling of certain issues are. So, without spoiling anything all I’ll say is having a bunch of teenagers suffering from depression read The Bell Jar sticks out as careless and the handling of certain characters’ mental illness was blasé.
Belzhar is not what I expected. The little information I knew about the novel before reading it led me to believe it was a young adult The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, meaning Plath’s work would be heavily featured. Unfortunately, Plath’s work is featured in such a small way that it’s almost insignificant.
Jam is devastated when her first love dies and is sent to a school for “troubled youth”. Jam is suffering from depression, along with almost all the other students. She, and a few others, are chosen for a Special Topics English course that will only be reading Sylvia Plath’s work. From a realistic standpoint, this seems irresponsible on the teacher and school’s part. Having students who are dealing with depression focus on an author who was clearly suffering from depression and who later committed suicide seems counter productive. But hey, what do I know?
Despite my initial thoughts, I was immediately excited to dive into the mind of Sylvia Plath through Jam’s perspective. Plath’s voice spoke to Jam in an intimate way, so I was eager to explore more of Jam through Plath. However, other than a few choice quotes and Jam saying how much she identifies with Plath’s voice, the focus shifts to Jam’s experience writing in a journal. I expected Jam to work through her thoughts and feelings through Plath’s work, but that didn’t happen. Plath was shoehorned in a story about writing in a magical journal.
Belzhar lacks any real emotion. Everything is only surface level. The exploration of mental illness, grief, love, guilt, and forgiveness lack anything substantial. Each of the other characters goes through their emotional arcs that are barely touched upon, so, in the end, it offers nothing significant.
Overall, Belzhar is a slow moving story that takes an unexpected turn that offers little to no depth when exploring themes of mental illness, grief, love, guilt, and forgiveness.