Book Review: Belzhar

Posted August 18, 2014 by Kara in book review / 5 Comments

Book Review: BelzharBelzhar by Meg Wolitzer
Published by Dutton Juvenile on September 30th, 2014
Genres: paranormal, young adult
Pages: 272
Format: ARC
Source: BEA
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one-half-stars

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.

You know, I had no expectations for this book at all.  When I picked it up at BEA, I had no idea what it was, but I love stories like this, about depression and therapy and stays in mental health facilities.  But for a book that I had ZERO expectations for, I still ended up disappointed.

Jamaica, or “Jam” is sent to The Wooden Barn because her depression has escalated and her parents don’t know what else they can do to help her.  Her boyfriend, of 41 days, has died and she just can’t deal.  And when she gets to The Wooden Barn, Jam is chosen to participate in a super exclusive English class – only 5 or 6 kids ever make it into the class, and they only read one writer all semester.  Jam doesn’t really care though – at least, not until she sits down one evening to write her first entry in the journal Mrs Q handed out to the class.  This red leather journal has a special power that transports the writer to another world wherein the traumatic event that landed them at The Wooden Barn hasn’t happened yet.  So Jam gets to be with Reeve again and she’s ecstatic.

Over the course of the novel we get to hear each of the 5 students’ stories – what brought them to this therapeutic school.  Their stories are ghastly and horrible and I can’t imagine living through anything these kids have lived through.  However, I didn’t feel anything but the vaguest feelings of compassion for them because the way this story is told is just plain boring.  Each kid’s story is told in one huge monologue, each in the same format, each with the same voice.  They start by giving a little background information about themselves, while sitting in a circle around a candle at night.  Then they dive into the sordid details.  Each student sounds exactly the same, and they tell their stories with full dialog and everything. No one talks like that, and even if ONE person does, that certainly doesn’t mean that EVERYONE does, especially since they’re all different, come from different places geographically, and  have different backgrounds.

But the stilted dialogue wasn’t the only problem I had with the way this book was written.  I also had a really hard time connecting to Jam.  She and Reeve had known each other for 41 days before he died and she spiraled into a depression for over a year after his death.  She goes on and on within the book about how deeply they were in love but for fuck’s sake, they knew each other for 41 days!  She even goes on to say that she’s HARDLY EVEN A PERSON WITHOUT REEVE.  I mean, obviously this isn’t healthy – she’s in a school for emotionally disturbed kids after all – but this made it hard to take her seriously.  I just couldn’t get behind her motivations.

The writing itself was repetitive and boring.  There were hardly any descriptive passages at all so it was hard to get a handle on exactly what was going on and what it all looked like.  The voice was distant and without character.  The only thing that was really interesting was the journals’ power.  But the worst thing about all this is that, while Jam was really fucking boring, there were other side characters with much more interesting stories, particularly Sierra, a ballet dancer from DC who’s younger brother was abducted.

Now, all this doesn’t really seem like enough to make me as angry as I am at this book, and I agree.  What really pissed me off was the twist ending.  I was totally on board with the story itself until I got to the last 75ish pages and the “big reveal” happened.  I’ll tell you under the spoiler tag exactly what this twist was and how fucking angry it made me.  View Spoiler »

Sooo yeah.  Maybe some other readers will like this.  But this reader has seen enough twist endings that are actually successful to know when one is written for shock value and doesn’t really add anything to the story.  The reveal at the end actually pissed me off, and if that’s not enough, the writing is repetitive and boring with stilted, ridiculous dialogue, and uses formulaic storytelling tropes.

bekkabingo belzharThis book covers the Strong Sibling Relationship square on my Bookish Bingo card.

5 responses to “Book Review: Belzhar

  1. I was kind of hoping it would be a big fucking hit. But the generalized voices with only sordid detail to back them is an immediate turn off. Endngs for shock factor don’t really bother me as much, though, unless they come off as obviously contrived. I don’t think I wanna try this one but the journal thing still has me a bit curious. Eh, I hope, if I get to it, I like it a tad more than you did.
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