Fans of E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars will find another intriguing, mysterious novel in Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar. The book is predominantly set at The Wooden Barn, a boarding school for intelligent but emotionally unstable teens. When Jamaica “Jam” Gallahue transfers to The Wooden Barn after the unexpected death of her boyfriend, she is automatically enrolled in the elite, highly selective course Special Topics in English. Hand chosen and led by Mrs. Quenell, a Professor Trelawney feeling teacher, the students in Special Topics are each given a journal and assigned to write in it twice a week throughout the semester. The class’s official focus is the works of Sylvia Plath, but the students, who have been instructed to bond and look out for one another, quickly discover that their teacher may (or may not) have pulled them together for a different reason.
Is that an evasive enough teaser? Meg Wolitzer does a fine job of crafting a book that starts out like a seemingly typical young adult book, complete with a depressed, obsessed-with-her-boyfriend teen who feels like no one understands her. Once the story moves to The Wooden Barn though, the reader starts to pick up on an intriguing supernatural essence.
I personally enjoyed this book, especially for Sylvia Plath’s literary presence which is laced throughout the pages. While I found the ending to the story satisfying, I became slightly annoyed in the last few pages when I felt Wolitzer turned a little preachy. Rather than letting the reader come to his or her own “moral of the story,” Wolitzer instead bluntly spells it out, and then repeats herself a few times. If I choose to ignore these few passages though and instead remember the general story, I will have a better appraisal of this book.
Belzhar fans may also enjoy Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Though classified in the adult section, this story takes place in a boarding school for teens much like The Wooden Barn. And as at The Wooden Barn, there’s something different about the students who attend it... To find out what that something is, pick up a copy from your favorite Johnson County Library.