This was another young adult novel I picked up recently, in this case by a writer whose adult fiction I had already read. It was interesting to compare Meg Wolitzer’s portrayal of adolescent experience in The Interestings, which starts out with a group of gifted teens at a summer camp, and here in Belzhar, which is set among a group of gifted but emotionally damaged teens at a boarding school. Apart from the fact that The Interestings follows the characters into midlife, its portrayal of the characters and their experience is also subtler and more nuanced, and I don’t think it’s necessary that the emotional landscape of a teen novel has to be flatter or more black-and-white than that of a novel for adults.
That said, there was a lot to like about Belzhar, as the main character, Jam, tries to cope with the grief from a shocking loss that has thrown her into a deep depression. The boarding-school setting is a little contrived (actually, by the end of the book I’d decided it was more contrived than I thought it was, based on the ending, but I’ll get to that later). The school is designed for students who are gifted but “fragile,” and the friends the main character meets at school have suffered a wide range of traumas — but apparently the school does not allow students to be on any medication, nor does any form of psychological counselling or any other sort of therapy seem to be offered. The suggestion seems to be that simply by isolating a bunch of traumatized teens from their families and friends and educating them together in a remote rural setting, they’ll get better without any more specific interventions.
This seems unlikely, as does the school’s ban on cellphones and internet access (question: how would any modern high-school student complete homework without internet?) — but, like the blizzard that keeps Jam from getting home over Thanksgiving break, it’s an obvious contrivance — to make the world of the boarding school a closed system, in which inconvenient relationships and information from the outside world can’t break in to trouble the plot. A kind of bell jar, in fact — the students read Sylvia Plath, and the title is a reference both to her book and to the sealed-off world they find themselves entering (a concept I’ll get to in a moment) — but it also relates to the school itself.
Once you accept these contrivances, the story is pretty good, and kept me engaged. The main conceit of the plot is that a group of students gets hold of something that allows them a kind of limited time-travel — back to the times and people in their lives that triggered their traumatic experiences. Everyone has the opportunity to revisit those experiences, enabling them, ideally, to find the kind of closure that was denied them in real life, and then move forward with their lives. It’s an intriguing concept, though you can see how it would work better with some traumas than others. For someone grieving the loss of a loved one, as Jam is throughout the novel, it’s easy to see how a chance to say goodbye and accept the loss might help. But what about the girl who endlessly relives the day she let her younger brother get off the bus a few stops before home so he could go to a store, only to lose him forever when he’s kidnapped between the bus stop and home? What kind of re-living could ever help a person reconcile themselves to a moment like that? All the time-travel device could do would make you search endlessly for things you could have done differently — and, in fact, this is pretty much what happens.
Despite my doubts about it, I read this book quickly and found it engaging. The ending has a big twist that did a good job of surprising me — but the more I thought about it, the more the twist ending made me reconsider what I thought of the rest of the book.
If this is enough to intrigue you and you think you might read this book sometime, STOP HERE. I’m going to discuss the ending, so SPOILERS BELOW!!!
SPOILER: So the big twist that’s revealed at the end is that Reeve, the boyfriend whose sudden and mysterious death Jam has been grieving throughout the whole book, ISN’T DEAD. And also, wasn’t her boyfriend. He was a guy she had a crush on, with whom she once briefly made out at a party while they were both drinking. But he had a girlfriend; he was never all that interesting in Jam, and the whole relationship was something she’s made up in her head, cobbled together from bits and pieces of interactions stitched together with a lot of wishful thinking. When he finally told her to get lost, she somehow convinced herself that he was dead, because he was dead to her.
When I first got to this twist, it made some sense — especially to the way Jam’s family and friends back home didn’t take her loss seriously enough. And as I thought about the way I, as a teenager, could conflate entire relationships out of a meaningful glance from the guy at the next locker, I had some sympathy for how Jam had convinced herself that Reeve really was in love with her.
But this was one of the endings that the longer I sat with it, the more it bothered me, and it made me rethink a lot of my opinions of the book, especially after I read some other reviews from readers who hadn’t been happy with the ending. For one thing, I’d missed or forgotten the fact that Jam’s depression over Reeve’s “death” lasted for a full YEAR before her parents finally despaired and sent her to boarding school. That’s not simply convincing yourself of something you wish were true — that’s a full-fledged psychotic delusion. Which means that throwing her in with these other kids who are experiencing a normal response to real and severe trauma is not only irresponsible but probably dangerous. If Jam really believed Reeve was dead, and/or kept acting as if she did, for an entire year after her crush told her to get lost — that’s severe. It’s not that I’m doubting that a girl could grieve for a whole year over a guy she liked who didn’t like her — I did that myself, for most of the year after I turned fourteen, and in the most melodramatic way. But I never lost my grip on reality, and if Jam has, to that extent, she shouldn’t be in some airy-fairy boarding school where the kids can’t have cellphones and sit around singing KumBaYa and can’t take antidepressants. She should be receiving serious psychiatric care.
So, once the twist was revealed at the end, I felt it undermined the premise of the book to a degree that changed how I felt about it. I probably still would recommend this book to a YA reader like my daughter, but I felt a bit cheated, after I’d had time to process the ending.