Dutton, 2014 264 pgs
Jam is sent to The Wooden Barn, a New England boarding school for emotionally disturbed kids. She has been unable to get out of bed and go to school since her British exchange student boyfriend, Reeve, tragically died. Her parents are out of ideas and hope this last resort will help Jam "snap out of it". Jam is scheduled for "Special Topics in English", a class that is difficult to get into and is randomly offered. Jam is unsure why she is there but walks in the first day to be greeted by Mrs. Quenell, a veteran teacher scheduled to retire at the end of the semester. The five students in the class are instructed that they will be studying the work of Sylvia Plath exclusively and as part of the process must write in a journal twice a week. As Jam begins to write in her journal late one night a mysterious thing happens: she is transported to a dream-like place where she connects with Reeve. After talking with the other students in the class, it is discovered that they all have had a similar experience. The five students decide to ban together, share their stories, dub the dream-like place "Belzhar" (after Plath's The Bell Jar), and agree to tell no one but each other about the transporting journals. Eventually through trial and error the teenagers learn the restrictions of the journals, start to heal, and form genuine bonds with each other. The semester draws to a close. What will happen when they fill up the journals? Does Mrs. Quenell know about the transforming powers of them? What is the true story behind Jam and Reeve? All plot lines are satisfactorily resolved and Wolitzer ends her novel on a positive and hopeful note.
Wolitzer, more commonly known for her adult works, offers her first book for teenagers (she previously wrote an upper elementary book titled The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman). In this book Wolitzer explores the power of books, writing, and the work of Sylvia Plath. The emotional intensity of teenagers is the main focus of this book and the journey of the five young people, who have suffered great trauma and gradually pull themselves out on and onto the road to healing. The back stories of the young people are slowly revealed, helping the reader to turn pages. The last to be fully revealed is that of our heroine, who is exposed as an unreliable narrator, which is a cool and unexpected plot twist. Wolitzer is an amazing writer and Belzhar is well constructed. Teenagers (girls especially) will be drawn to Jam's story and will appreciate the tragic drama as it unfolds. Jam may be an unreliable narrator, but teens will sympathize with her and will root for her quest for healing and happiness. Readers will be encouraged to delve into The Bell Jar and may even pick up some of Plath's poetry, which is an added bonus. Young readers will appreciate that all the loose ends are tied up neatly, but not unrealistically, and I appreciate that the book is a stand-alone without two more titles to follow.