Belzhar: Review

September 18, 2014 1.5 star books, 2014, contemporary, Kim 31 ★½

Belzhar: ReviewBelzhar by Meg Wolitzer
Published by Dutton Children's on September 30, 2014
Genres: contemporary
Pages: 264
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
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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.

If you’re already skeptical about  someone being in deep, dark mourning lasting a year over someone they knew for only a few weeks then this is definitely not going to be a book for you. Although normally that would put me off I really, really wanted this book to work. Considering Wolitzer is well established in adult literary fiction, I suppose I figured she was likely to have a shot at creating a truly wrenching story of lost love even if that love was so brief. There were a couple of clear ways this scenario could work and I was curious to see if Wolitzer would pull it off. She didn’t. Everything about this story is surface level only. There is no depth of emotion, no character development, limited growth, stunted pacing, and one hell of an obnoxious ending that had me going, “Seriously?!”

So here’s the plot: After a year of near catatonic mourning, Jam is sent to a therapeutic boarding school where she is placed in a very selective English class. The class, focused solely on the writings of Sylvia Plath, has the teens chronicle their emotional processes through journaling. Jam has 4 other classmates each grapping with their own devastating trauma. When the students discover that their journals take them to a mysterious otherworld where they can revisit their lives pre-trauma they form a sort of secret pact. They name this otherworld Belzhar and meet regularly to discuss what each has seen there. All except Jam whose suffering is so great she can barely scratch the surface of what happened to her.

This book is all tell and no show. The relationship between Jam and Reeve always feels distant and empty. We have only a few scant memories of the time they spent before Reeve’s death (it was only a few weeks). None of them are particularly poignant or deep. Then there is the time they spend in Belzhar but that is also distinctly empty (they are limited to reliving what has already happened-which wasn’t much). And we are never really present in Jam’s feelings. I understand that a good part of this is because Jam is having difficulty processing her deep grief and can’t let too much in. Jam says she is devastated, and I guess we are to believe her, but there is nothing in the writing that ever conveys her devastation or evoked any sort of emotion from me as a reader. In order for this book to have worked for me there needed to be a strong emotional foundation portrayed in Jam and Reeve’s relationship and it was just not there.

As for the character development…well, there is none. Jam is never fully fleshed out as an individual. I couldn’t tell you what type of person Jam is other than “deeply troubled.” And again with the telling not showing: We are told Jam becomes best friends with Sierra, a fellow Belzhar classmate, but we barely ever see them interact. The supporting characters felt like much more realized individuals than Jam ever does and are far more interesting. Any emotion this book managed to eke out of me came from the other classmates.

For the vast majority of this book I felt nothing. I was turning the pages, sure, but I had no attachment to Jam or the story. I kept going because I was certain the ending, whatever it was that Jam was repressing, was going to blow my mind. No. Everything of possible emotional import in this book is negated by the ending.

Here’s the twist and why it doesn’t work: View Spoiler »

To add insult to injury the book closes with a few final chapters that wrap everything up neatly with a bow of overly tidy, patronizing explanation and rainbows for all. I couldn’t escape the feeling that Wolitzer had a very cursory understanding of what a young adult novel should be. Almost as if she had a checklist of cliches. The entire book comes across as a cheap gimmick. The cover says that this is a story about “first love, deep sorrow, and the power of acceptance.” This book is not even remotely close to being any of those things.

And perhaps I’m judging this more harshly than I should because of its pretensions to comparison with The Bell Jar, a literary masterpiece and an intense examination of actual suffering. Belzhar has little to do with any of Plath’s works other than some superficial  mentions touched on a few times in the text. Like pretty much everything else in this story it’s all surface, no depth. 

This is definitely my most disappointing read of the year so far. My initial interest was piqued when I saw this book billed, somewhere along the way, as a retelling of The Bell Jar. This is most definitely not a retelling of The Bell Jar. Not even close. I think this is the sort of book that will appeal to fans of We Were Liars (though the twists are nowhere even remotely similar) in the way that it is about damaged teens who are part of a “secret club” and shares a similar tone and feel with that work.

Looking for a second opinion? My friend Jamie at the Perpetual Page Turner had a much more positive experience than I did as well as some very moving words on the impact of The Bell Jar that is well worth your read.



An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.


kim teal













31 Responses to “Belzhar: Review”

  1. tnun

    definitely a bad book, whatever the genre as if that should matter. my most serious gripe is that it pretends to be about the importance of words, when its major device is magic. it is not at all about words. nothing happens in the classroom that has to do with words. nothing happens in the journals that has to do with words. nothing happens in the minds of the YA’s that has to do with words. journal keeping has nothing to do with comforting yourself with the past, illusory or not, until, voila!, the eleventh hour, or the apocalypse, when some bloody apparently objective truth obtrudes and either heals all or plunges one into oblivion.

    what a crap book, I thought to myself as I finished it. and then discovered that there were acknowlegements at the end for all the help the author had received. what? you need help to write this pap?

    alas, the writing of books seems to have become a kind of business. Sylvia Plath would barf.

  2. Shannon @ It Starts At Midnight

    Ugh, this is so disappointing! I think this is the third review today I have read, and you’ve all had similar feelings. But to hear that there is no emotional depth? Now I am really not sure I want to read this, because I kind of thought that was the whole point of the book! I mean, I probably *will* read it at some point, just to see for myself, but the more I read about it from trusted reviewers, the lower it falls on my TBR. Great review, and I hope the next book works out better for you!
    Shannon @ It Starts At Midnight recently posted…Midnight Chat: Reader Stereotypes- True for You?

  3. Brittany T

    I think its kinda funny how a lot of us who have not read this couldn’t help our nosy selves and read the spoiler…me included! I’m really not one for downtrodden and depressing stuff and the fact that is was done with no emotional depth really is a HUGE turn-off. So glad i came across your honest reliable review since I was trying to squish this in among some other arcs that I will now have more time for. :-)
    Brittany T recently posted…♡Review: Lailah by Nikki Kelly♡

  4. Layla A

    Oh man, I like the concept of this book SO MUCH. Tell me more about this secret class where people read Sylvia Plath all the time. (I also want a secret class where we read only Virginia Woolf and we journal.)

    That said, it seems clear from this review that the story plays out in a way that is both offensive and patronizing to YA readers. Double whammy. (It doesn’t sound like it deals with either heartbreak – no matter how unjustified – or psychotic episodes really well, and WTFFFFFFFFF re: that spoiler. There are good ways that you could use the scenario behind it in a book like this – trying hard not to use spoilery language – but to make it the subject of a twist is downright awful.)

    Great review. I am rolling my eyes HARD at the Belzhar / Bell Jar thing.
    Layla A recently posted…Lies My Girlfriend Told Me

  5. Susan T.

    This sounded like such a great book that I’m sad you didn’t like it! I have heard of others who really loved it so maybe it is one of those that you either love or hate. :)

  6. Pili

    Thank you so much for your very honest review Kim!
    I have to say I wasn’t very much drawn to this books by the synopsis myself, but after reading your review and even reading the spoiler bit (I couldn’t help myself) I’m even more sure I will be staying well away from it. I’m dealing with my own relationship grief (no deaths involved thankfully) and I don’t think I’d take kindly to something like that.
    What I do plan to do is read the Bell Jar sooner than later!
    Pili recently posted…Friday Reads: ARC Review of Lailah by Nikki Kelly!!

    • Kim

      Yeah, this definitely isn’t a Pili book. I feel confident in that! I’m sorry to hear about your relationship grief. :( I will say that I was drawn to this because I wanted to see if it could pull off the catharsis of deep relationship mourning. When my last relationship ended (and granted it had lasted years and years-not weeks!) I really, really did not do well. I also had a lot of other very serious stuff going on but losing the relationship really sent me over the edge into an unhealthy mental space. I was hoping this book was going to connect with me on that level and maybe perhaps be a deep and true exploration of grief. Nope! So disappointing.

      But yes. Do read THE BELL JAR and soon. I found it to be transcendent. It helped me through a very rough time. If I were ever going to get a tattoo it would be literary and it would probably be from THE BELL JAR. I fear this makes me like a walking cliche but…it is what it is I guess.
      Kim recently posted…Echoes of Us: guest post + giveaway

      • Pili

        Yeah, my own long term relationship of seven years with my best friend is over, and I’m also not really dealing with it too spectacularly, so I think this book might at best leave me cold and at worst enrage me…

        Going to TBD now to get me a paper copy of The Bell Jar, I feel it’s one of those books that will deserve it!

        Thank you, Kim!
        Pili recently posted…Friday Reads: ARC Review of Lailah by Nikki Kelly!!

        • Kim

          Oh, poor Pili. I understand this all too well. I really do. My relationship was a similar length of time and it was also ultra long distance so there were all sorts of hardship involved. But yeah, I know what it is to feel stuck at the bottom of this murky pond of feeling.

          THIS book would just make you angry. For sure. THE BELL JAR might very possibly heal your soul. It healed mine. I will say that it’s an intense journey and not one to undertake lightly. But is very definitely worth it. Im super curious to see what you’ll think of it!
          Kim recently posted…Echoes of Us: guest post + giveaway

  7. Danielle

    Mmmmmmmm… I admit, I was excited for this book and then Meg Wolitzer came to Melbourne Writers Festival and I became dubious. She didn’t talk about ‘Belzhar’ at all, but in discussing how ‘The Interestings’ begins when the characters are 16, she told the audience that she quickly time-leaped to them in their 20s, lest readers think this was a young adult book – said in a somewhat dismissive way, that made me think she maybe didn’t have the greatest respect for YA.

    From your review, it sounds like she’s writing what she *thinks* young readers want (in the most cliche way) – lots of melodrama without the meat.

    Great, honest review.
    Danielle recently posted…By teens, for teens: the Inky Awards

    • Kim

      Your story really doesn’t surprise me. I had exactly the feeling you’ve described while reading-that she has a very superficial understanding of what YA is and just wrote a book with these narrow ideas in mind. It was like she had a teen cliche checklist and just went down it. And especially at the very end when the book becomes super patronizing. The teacher character literally spells out the “ultimate meaning” of the book. It’s tremendously condescending. So disappointing.
      Kim recently posted…Echoes of Us: guest post + giveaway

    • Kim

      Well, they are very different books that share some similarities in feel and characterization. Honestly, give it a shot. It’s totally a readable book and also not very long so there’s not a huge commitment at least. If you don’t like it you’d know fairly early on.
      Kim recently posted…Echoes of Us: guest post + giveaway

  8. Carina Olsen

    UHM. What the hell. I love love love your review. <3 thank you for sharing and being honest Kim. You are awesome. But what the hell. I read the spoilery parts. And damn. Not a book for me. Not at all o.O Does not sound like something I would like. Sigh. I'm kind of happy you didn't like it, lol, but sad it wasn't a better book. <3
    Carina Olsen recently posted…Review: Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

    • Kim

      Yeah it’s so hard to talk about this book because the main reason it got such a bad rating is that “twist.” And I just know that if you don’t like the twist there’s no point in reading the book. So yes, I put it there for those who can’t resist. But hey-at least now you *know* it’s not for you.

      And at least this wasn’t a “This is boring and I can’t finish it” 1 star reads. More like a “This is so awful I’m almost perversely entertained.” If that makes any sense. I had to see if the ending was what I guessed and yep-it was just as pointless and awful as I feared! *sigh*
      Kim recently posted…Echoes of Us: guest post + giveaway

  9. Wendy Darling

    Oh my gosh, Kim, that SPOILER. O_O I can see it working in certain contexts, but that’s a troubling message to be sending, and certainly the book does not seem to make up for that in other ways. I get what you mean re: a WE WERE LIARS vibe, even though the story is very different. I’m glad that you and Layla guinea-pigged these two books first, because I can tell both of these books are not for me.

    I was very moved by Jamie’s blog post, though I’m pretty sure I’ll react to this the same way you did. Thank goodness we didn’t do that journaling thing, hah.

    These books with twists…it’s so interesting how often they don’t seem to work or can feel incredibly manipulative. Now I’m going to go check out this book’s ratings to see how other people responded to it.

    • Kim

      I know. It’s also really unsubtly foreshadowed so when I started to pick up on it I was already groaning. “Please this can’t be what I think it is, right?” Sure is! And I’m so, so bothered by the messaging. I feel like with these things more care is put into the twist/gimmick being all shocking and whathaveyou than in considering the repercussions of such careless messaging. It’s sometimes to make me think I’m overreacting since invariably many people don’t find it to be a big deal. I think to myself, “Would I want to purchase this for the teens in our library?” and my answer is resoundingly “No. I’d rather they read a much healthier and realistic portrayal of mental illness.” It feels plain irresponsible to me to do otherwise. I think the manipulative element also contributes to the resentment I can get with this sort of book and thus the harsh rating.

      I don’t know how generally well this one is received because I haven’t seen much about it yet (other than Jamie’s post) but I honestly have to scratch my head if it is overwhelmingly positive. I feel like usually when I don’t like a book I can see where someone else would. But it’s really not the case here mostly because of how empty everything felt. But, hey, if other people can find enjoyment from this book then hooray I guess. I’m super curious to see what the widespread reaction will be, though.
      Kim recently posted…Echoes of Us: guest post + giveaway

  10. ashley

    As you know, I agree with so much of this review. Even weeks after finishing it, I’m still kind of like “huh?” Like there had to be more to it, right? I completely agree about the twist and why it doesn’t work. Particularly because I saw it coming and I expected more? I know that sounds weird, but with how many rave reviews I read before I, too, was extremely disappointed.
    ashley recently posted…A Kiss For Midwinter (Brothers Sinister #1.5) by Courtney Milan

    • Kim

      I didn’t even realize there were any rave reviews for this book. I truly don’t understand how. There’s always that fear with this sort of thing that it’s like, “Wait. Am I just some sort of ass who can’t appreciate true works of literature?” But nah. The entire book is emotionally empty. I’m glad I have you to understand the feeling!
      Kim recently posted…Echoes of Us: guest post + giveaway

  11. Nikki

    Yeah there are a lot of books on my TBR pile, this most likely won’t be one of them.

    • Kim

      I really hate to ever say this doubts are high that you’d regret it. On the plus side, it wasn’t a “This is dreadfully boring and I can’t read it” book. It would’ve been DNFed if that was true. Instead there’s almost an enjoyment in awful and perverse I find the twist to be. So at least there’s that!

    • Kim

      Well, I mean, the writing is not at all bad. At least not in the way you’d expect a typical disaster to be. It’s just that the writing is so empty of emotion and the twist is so ultimately meaningless that I just couldn’t like it. As always with books it’s super personal. But if it sounds like it’s definitely not for you then I’m glad I could be of help!

  12. Mary @ BookSwarm

    D’oh! That really bites. Of course, I’ll try it, just to see but I’m definitely bracing myself for disappointment. Her “break” really does sound incredibly shallow and quite pitiful, actually. A “loss” like hers can’t possibly be compared to someone who experienced real tragedy in their lives — I’m kind of offended on their behalf! And, drat. This book had such possibilities…
    Mary @ BookSwarm recently posted…Pre-Squee: Court of Fives by Kate Elliott

    • Kim

      Oh yes for sure check it out yourself. For your sake I hope it’ll be a much better reading experience. And, you know, it probably wouldn’t’ve seemed half as bad if Jam wasn’t surrounded by those friends with *actual* tragedies to deal with. I probably would have still been like “Seriously?” but just not as harsh.

      It could very well be that this is just a case of me not getting this book. It does have its quotable moments but they were few and far between. Ah well. I’m curious to see what you’ll end up making of it!