Published by Dutton Juvenile on September 30th, 2014
Genres: paranormal, young adult
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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.
Belzhar was a pick that just landed in my possession during BEA. I never really gave it a second look after I got it. When I started to pick apart my ARC pile to find something entertaining, the phrase about a boarding school sunk a hook right into my proverbial mouth. The second thing to grab at my curiosity was the appealing cover design. This book didn’t have a huge heap of buzz, so the excitement about diving in blind really helped my sudden interest.
There was a stumbling block right out of the gate when I started the book. The main character was going through a horrible depression that was set off by her boyfriend’s sudden death. Her boyfriend that she knew for 41 days. I wasn’t impressed, and it put me in a horrible mood for the first quarter of the book.
Jam, the central character of the story, seemed slightly self-centered and slightly off. She wasn’t flat out mean or rude, but she didn’t seem to have any chemistry with the other characters or the reader. She was a vessel to deliver the story. Jam wasn’t judgmental of her roommate, but I had the nagging feeling that she was ready to make fun of her emo appearance and her attitude. The first part of the book seemed to rub me the wrong way. This might seem like a huge issue, but the reason for her dissonance with other people was well explained by the end of the story.
When the paranormal element kicked in, my attitude towards the story slowly changed. The minor roles of the other characters started to develop, and, as usual, they started to give some meat to the plot. I honestly was more wrapped up in the minor casts’ back stories, and I started to care more for them than the main character’s motives and history. I mean, someone’s boyfriend died, how exciting can that be? I was excited to read more about the tragic tales of Jam’s peers, and learn about the different levels of grief, and the deepest desires for the teenagers to return back to a better time.
When it comes to paranormal genres, I do love a contemporary paranormal story. Even with the fantasy portion that gives the book the title name, the realism in the story was outstanding. The events and the people did mirror realistic pain, diversity of people, and the process of grieving and acceptance.
For those who enjoy a meta-book read, then this one is going to draw you right in. The English assignment in the special English class revolved around reading and analyzing Sylvia Plath’s own pieces of work, with The Bell Jar sharing the lion’s portion of the attention. The author drew a parallel between the themes of isolation and depression in her own book and Plath’s novel. It was risky, especially using a story that is already saturated in other pieces, but it was pulled off with enough flare to make it worth the risk.
The juiciest part of the book really made an impression. So often, I can see the surprise coming. It is one of the downsides of chronic reading. So imagine my shock when the twist shook my world! The sudden revelation dramatically changed my opinion of the story, of the main character, and my main complaint about the book. You’re going to have to grab this one, just for the sake of the ending.
By the end, my only main concerns were small little points that seemed to nag on my nerves. I never cared for Jam’s new love interest, but I liked the relationship between the two of them, if that makes any sense. Jam’s roommate tends to get the short end of the stick, and I feel that there was a missed opportunity to explore her own side story, since it was very engaging. This book would have been 5 stars, but there was some issues with animal cruelty, which always seemed to drag down my rating. It is necessary for the development of the story, but it still bothered me enough to lower the rating.
You have to set aside your inner skeptic for this one. Belzhar ventures outside of the expected, turns away from the basic, and delivers a very compelling, bittersweet story. The secondary characters tug at your heartstring, and come prepared with some tissues. If you make it to the end, it is well worth the read.