“Belzhar” is about a girl named Jam, who could not get over the death of her boyfriend Reeve, so her parents and doctor decide it would be best if she went to a school in rural Vermont with other kids who have emotional issues.
Somehow she gets chosen for a mysterious class, Special Topics in English, that previous students don’t talk about but somehow everyone gets that it is a life changing experience. It’s taught by a somewhat eccentric teacher who doesn’t treat them as if they are emotionally fragile. As evidenced by the fact that she chooses to focus this class on Sylvia Plath, who was an amazing writer but committed suicide when she was 30 years old.
First of all, the title “Belzhar” is based on the title of Sylvia Plath’s most well known book “The Bell Jar”, which I loved. It is a book that anyone who has felt most alone when surrounded by people can relate to.
But in a book that is about a girl in a class that revolves around the writing of Sylvia Plath, there is not a lot of talk about it. There’s supposedly intense conversations and debates. But we hear none of it. It was so disappointing. And I think, as a result, the relationships she forms with her classmates don’t feel all that deep. When she says that one of the girls is her best friend, I was surprised. I went back, wondering if I had missed something. Not to mention, it didn’t feel like the class helped her work through her issues. It felt like the guy who feels her up does. (This is where I rolled my eyes.)
I get that first love is all consuming. I remember the feeling well. Maybe it’s because I now have a daughter who I know may someday experience this kind of thing but I have a real problem with books where the girl falls apart because of a guy, loses all her friends, and then needs another guy to put her back together. I know it’s fiction and writers aren’t trying to write role models but seriously?? I’m about to get political and into equal pay for women so I’ll stop there.
Jam’s boyfriend is not really dead. It was not a particularly shocking twist. I kinda saw it coming. (There’s more but I want to leave something unsaid in case anyone wants to read this book after I’ve torn it apart.)
This is where my personal life influences my reading life.
My first love actually did die. Of cancer. When we were 18. I remember one of our close friends holding me up at the cemetery while we watched the casket being lowered into the ground. Then, at the restaurant afterwards, alternating between laughing hysterically and crying while we told stories about him from grade school and junior high. Before anything bad had happened. Before we could have even imagined anything like this.
He wasn’t the first person I lost to cancer and unfortunately, not the last. But that was the loss that changed me. When the nightmares started. The insomnia. The bouts of depression. Sometimes I needed help. Other times, I didn’t want it.
But having experienced all that, this book felt like it only skimmed the surface, not just of the works of Sylvia Plath but the lives of the characters who supposedly could relate to her real life tragedy because of something they experienced and supposedly learned how to cope. I just didn’t feel Jam’s heartache. Just apathy. I finished the book, but reluctantly. The ending was satisfying in that there is closure. I just didn’t really care for how it got there.
I remember when I first read “The Bell Jar”. It would be melodramatic if I said it saved my life. But I will say it was one of the things that convinced me that suicide was not the answer, no matter how much it hurts. The pain is a reminder that I’m alive and well.