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Wolitzer ’81 explores the adolescent psyche

'Belzhar' discovers redemption in moments of introspection embedded within unexceptional plot

Only rarely does a young adult novel achieve the complexity and gravitas of general literary fiction, which perhaps explains why writers in the latter category rarely seek to appeal to the former. Of course, there are notable exceptions, including Carl Hiaasen, Philippa Gregory and — as of the Sept. 30 release of “Belzhar” — Meg Wolitzer ’81. 

Her previous novel, “The Interestings,” was so enthusiastically received that it might be unfair to hold it up as the yardstick by which to evaluate the merits of her latest endeavor. Still, as evidenced by reviews of “Belzhar” in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, it is difficult to resist this temptation. At first, the points of comparison emerge as unmistakable, the most conspicuous of which lies in their common premise: misfit teens thrown together amidst an educational climate so unorthodox that it’s practically off-the-grid.

But both in scope and atmosphere, “Belzhar” is miles away from Wolitzer’s previous setting at a utopian summer camp for the arts. No joint is passed around in a teepee to bind the characters together here — only trauma and its unmitigated aftermath.

We meet our narrator, 16-year-old Jamaica “Jam” Gallahue, on her first day at Wooden Barn, a boarding school for “emotionally sensitive, highly intelligent” students. This oft-repeated euphemism thinly veils the true nature of the school, which is a sort of halfway house between a psychiatric facility and bigger, meaner reality — or, as Jam puts it, “It’s like a big lily pad where you can linger before you have to make the frog-leap back to ordinary life.” In the book’s opening sentence, she explains that her “emotional sensitivity” stems from the death of Reeve, a British exchange student with whom she had a whirlwind romance for all of 41 days.

Jam learns that she’s been selected for Special Topics in English, an elite class with a enigmatic reputation at Wooden Barn. Each year, the eccentric Mrs. Q. handpicks roughly five students for an intensive, semester-long study of a single author — in this case, Sylvia Plath. The entire plot unfolds from here — while events occur outside the class, they are rooted in the Special Topics curriculum.

This class is almost Breakfast Club-like in its motley makeup: the type-A debate club captain, the rich girl in the wheelchair, the model-perfect dancer, the burnout in the oversized hoodie — and Jam, a self-described “nice, cute girl.” With each student seemingly representing a different table in the high school cafeteria, the only missing ingredient is a young Emilio Estevez.

But their dark and untold histories incite an insatiable curiousity in the reader. To her credit, Wolitzer doles out this gratification at a deliciously measured pace, providing a space after each halting anecdote for a quiet, reflective dialogue on its gravity. These responses are among the most authentic exchanges of ideas and emotions we see in the book, and they raise questions that are finally, refreshingly compelling — questions like how to weigh one trauma against another and whether this comparative perspective is even productive. It is disappointing that these moments of lucid vulnerability so rarely lift each character from the flatness of stereotype.

The first of these moments occurs soon after Jam’s first journal entry, when the act of writing induces a trance-like state that mentally transports her back to Reeve, her bygone romance. Jam revels in her reunion with him, falling easily back into their cadence of banter and intimacy. Later, her classmates report similar experiences returning to their pre-trauma lives. They coin this realm of remembrance “Belzhar,” referencing Plath’s “The Bell Jar”. But as conceptually intriguing as this is, some invisible and impenetrable barrier remains between Wolitzer’s writing desk and Jam’s world at the Wooden Barn.

As a middle-aged writer of literary fiction, she does not wear particularly well the language and mannerisms of the millennial. The dialogue is stilted and the plot encumbered by the narrow, sophomoric narrative that the genre’s audience has come to expect. And though the tone is appropriately clean and simple, it frequently overshoots its target — our “highly intelligent” narrator, though writing prolifically and immersed in an in-depth study of Sylvia Plath’s poetry, still expresses herself through superficiality and cliche.

At a certain point, Jam can see that Belzhar is a place of stagnancy, not progress. Its strict adherence to the past means that her repertoire alongside Reeve is limited to the experiences of the forty-one days they knew each other. They’ve been cycling through the same conversations for weeks now.

Jam’s dawning, sinking awareness of this phenomenon should be enough to nudge her out of her fixation on the past. This is the growth her character deserves. But in a baffling and contrived deus ex machina, she suddenly finds herself attracted to the burnout in the oversized hoodie, and her loyalties begin to shift from one love interest to another.

Prior to this turning point, his character has about four lines.

Thus, what was almost a prescient bildungsroman on mental illness, makeshift families and the redemptive powers of creative expression becomes another banal teenage romance.

And for those who seek it, Special Topics teacher Mrs. Q. succinctly sums up the book’s crux of healing and self-realization on the very first day of class: “Everyone has something to say. But not everyone can bear to say it. Your job is to find a way.” Though Wolitzer may not have found the way, she occasionally redeems the lukewarm prose when she lets her naturally luminous voice shine through the slats of artifice.


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