Review | Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

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.

2 cupcakes

Belzhar certainly has an interesting premise: a grieving girl writes in a journal and is able to be with her dead boyfriend again. In this place, though, Jamaica can only experience moments with Reeve that have previously occurred, allowing her to hold onto those happy memories. It was a neat way to explore the depths of Jam’s grief, and although it became repetitive, it was interesting to see how the visits enabled Jam to distance herself from Reeve and move on.

The relationship between Reeve and Jam was told only through these trips to Belzhar and, as such, it was emotionally distant and empty. Granted, that may have been because there weren’t too many memories that Jam could share with readers, given that her relationship lasted only a handful of weeks. I understood Jam’s attraction to Reeve – I would probably fall for a boy with a British accent quite quickly, especially if he represented someone who was quite my opposite. I know that the length of a relationship isn’t necessarily proportional to the depth of the feelings of those involved, and that emotions are often heightened in first relationships since there’s no previous expectations or a basis of comparison, however the extent of Jam’s love was told to me rather than shown so I couldn’t buy their whirlwind romance.

The characters also never seemed to be fully fleshed-out. They’re all emotionally fragile and troubled individuals and their deep bond resulted from Wolitzer telling readers that it was there instead of showing readers the interactions that led to this friendship. The scenes intended to provide these characters with depth (such as Jam helping birth a baby goat) just felt awkward and out of place, and the speeches that the secondary characters gave to explain how they arrived at The Wooden Barn negated any emotion that these tales of loss would normally have evoked.

Until the ending, I was convinced that Belzhar was going to be a solid 3 star read, despite my lack of emotional involvement. Unfortunately, the twisty ending didn’t shock me in the way that it was supposed to; instead, it felt like a mockery of mental illness, trivializing those who actually had experienced traumatic events.

Overall, Belzhar had an intriguing premise, but my inability to form any emotional attachments with the characters and the way that the “big reveal” was handled made it fall flat.

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