Author: Meg Wolitzer
Narrator: Jorjeana Marie
Publication Date: January 1, 2014
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
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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.
From New York Times bestselling author Meg Wolitzer comes a breathtaking and surprising story about first love, deep sorrow, and the power of acceptance.
Jam (short for Jamaica) has lost her boyfriend, Reeve. They spent six blissful weeks hopelessly in love, until Reeve suddenly died, leaving Jam reeling. Jam is still grieving deeply over a year later, and her parents send her to a school called The Barn in Vermont. The Barn specializes in teaching "emotionally fragile teens" who have dealt with various tragedies in their lives. At school, Jam is specially selected to be a part of a class called Special Topics in English, a class that past students have claimed was life changing. Jam and her fellow students do have their lives changed, in the form of mysterious journals that take them to an alternate reality.
First let's discuss those things that intrigued me right from the start. I really enjoyed the cast of supporting characters. Jam was probably my least favorite character, but that doesn't mean she was bad. I really enjoyed Jam's roommate DJ, as well as the four other students in her Special Topics in English class. I loved the way they all bonded and supported each other. They initially came together over their shared grief, but eventually grew as a group and helped pull each other out of the darkness in the end.
I also loved the idea of the journals. I normally have a really hard time with magical realism stories, but this was very well done. I was really intrigued by the fact that the students could travel to an alternate reality - which they decided to name Belzhar - in which they could relive the happy moments before whatever tragedy they suffered. It was really interesting seeing how the different teens reacted to this phenomenon and how it proved to be healing for some, while others refused to let go of the memories and move on. One of the main reasons that I have trouble with magical realism is that I am usually left without answers at the end, and that really bugs me. But there was at least some explanation at the end...not much, but it was enough to satisfy me at least a little bit.
Now on to the events in the story that changed my opinion on the book. That twist! I felt....slighted? Confused? Offended? Tricked? I'm not sure if any of these words are the right one to describe how I felt. Basically, the twist really upset me. I know that no one can ever pass judgement on someone else's pain, because everyone experiences grief differently. BUT, after finding out the details of what happened to Jam's boyfriend, I was a little upset on behalf of the other teens at the school. What happened to her was different - by all means still painful and awful, but different. I also felt that mental health was handled....strangely in Belzhar. Personally, I felt it was addressed poorly, but as someone who has not had to deal with any mental health processes myself, I don't think it is up to me to pass judgment on what is right and wrong. However, I will say that I believe there were characters that needed some type of counseling or treatment that was not provided to them, and people dealing with very different things were lumped together into one big group to be dealt with as a whole.
So, did I like Belzhar or hate it? Honestly, I still can't decide. I keep changing my mind when trying to rate this book. I originally wanted to give it 4.5 stars because it really hooked me. But then when I thought more about it, I wanted to rate it 2 stars for the way mental health was handled. I'm so confused! I can't make up my mind! To sum everything up, Belzhar was a really interesting story, but it had some problems. I apologize for having to be so vague in this review. Trying not to give anything away, combined with my confusion about my thoughts, has led to a review that was incredibly difficult to write.