By: Melanie | January 10, 2015 | (61) Comments

Review: Belzhar by Meg WolitzerBelzhar by Meg Wolitzer
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Australia
Release Date: October 1, 2014
Genres: Contemporary, Magical Realism, YA
Pages: 266
Source: Received in exchange for review
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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.

stickers-my-review (1)Belzhar is a very difficult book for me to review. I’ve been sitting here in front of my laptop for more than half an hour just fuming and raging inside because of this book. Because I cannot talk about the cons just yet, let me just tell you guys what this book is about.

This book is about Jam. Jam’s full name is Jamaica; and yep, her parents named her after the place where she was conceived. As amusing as that is, Belzhar is not an amusing book. It is a dark and profound, for one of the first things we find out about our main character is that she was in love with Reeve Maxfield, and he died. Jam soon becomes inconsolable and her parents end up sending her to The Wooden Barn which is a school for teens who are “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent”.  At The Wooden Barn, Jam finds out that she’s been chosen to be part of Mrs. Quenell’s Special Topics in English class. This is an extremely selective and arguably elite course where only a handful of students (around 5) are selected to partake each year. Jam’s roommate, DJ, tells her that all the students who took Mrs. Quenell’s course in the previous years came out claiming that their lives had been changed forever, but no one outside the class really knows how and those who were in the class never seemed to divulge much. So on the first day of her class, Jam is skeptical. Soon, she and the other students in her small class are handed a red leather notebook, and what they don’t know is how much that notebook will change their lives.

Let’s talk about the prose because it was one of the things I loved most here. Meg Wolitzer’s writing skills are clearly not lacking. While I didn’t have the best experience with this novel of her’s, I am definitely going to check out her previous books. Her writing, though rather simplistic, was coated in honesty and bleakness and some of these moments in this novel hit really close to home for me. 

And I also know that pain can seem like an endless ribbon. You pull it and you pull it. You keep gathering it toward you, and as it collects, you really can’t believe that there’s something else at the end of it. Something that isn’t just more pain.

One of my two issues I had this book was the superficiality of the characters and their relationships. I didn’t manage to gain any emotional bond with any of the characters. Sure, I felt incredibly sorry for them and I was thoroughly intrigued by their pasts and what led them to end up at The Wooden Barn, but if they died randomly, I wouldn’t have blinked any eye. What was more of a problem, for me, were the relationships–romantic and platonic. I totally didn’t get why Jam and Griffin ended up smooching during this book. I mean, it was completely unnecessary and only took up pages when it shouldn’t have. Jam was trying to deal with the repercussions of her boyfriend’s death, for god’s sake. This is just another classic example in YA books where someone meets someone else to help them move on. As for Jam and Sierra’s friendship, it felt incredibly abrupt. One minute Sierra is completely closed off; the next minute they’re BFFs. Please, just no.

If I hadn’t read the ending of this novel, I would give this book around 3.5 stars. While I had issues with the characters and relationships, I loved the writing and the plot line (especially the Belzhar otherworld aspect). Unfortunately, the ending to Belzhar exists and I read it. And now, I fully regret it. I’m hiding this following part in spoiler tags to discuss why I hated the ending so much. View Spoiler »

“From New York Times bestselling author Meg Wolitzer comes a breathtaking and surprising story about first love, deep sorrow, and the power of acceptance.” This is what the blurb says, and let me tell you now; this is not a story about first love, deep sorrow, and the power of acceptance. This is anything but those three things; this was an incredibly shallow story for one that first felt profound, and it really is a shame for me to say. I will say that this book was surprising, like the blurb notes, though. I did not see that ending coming, but that doesn’t mean I liked it any more for that reason. 

~Thank you Simon and Schuster Australia for sending me this copy!~

2 Stars
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Owner (and crazy nut) at YA Midnight Reads
Melanie is one of the totally fabulous bloggers at YA Midnight Reads. She's a 16 year old student from Melbourne, Australia. She is normally found binge watching TV series, reading , blogging, procrastinating or fangirling about how Percabeth is the best ship ever. She's also a lover of caps lock and uses it excessively.

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61 Responses to Review: Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

  1. Hm, this is one of those books where I keep seeing such mixed things. Some people love it, others really dislike it, and further still I’ve seen people who are rather indifferent to the book altogether. I literally just borrowed this from the library, so I might as well read it so I know where I stand with the novel, but at the moment I honestly have no idea what I’ll think of it. xD Wonderful review! I do so love beautiful prose.
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    • Melanie says:

      I’d be really curious of reading your thoughts on this book, Kara! The reviews are all over the place, and I love reading everyone’s perspective on Belzhar

  2. I hear so many mixed things about this one! =/
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  3. Ella says:

    Uh-oh, this is why I seldom read books that address mental illness because it irks me whenever it’s not portrayed or addressed properly, and it is a hit or miss topic. Either you nail it or you don’t. Thank you for informing us about its misleading blurb. Too bad, I almost put it in my tbr because the blurb does sound intriguing. Maybe I’ll consider this next time. Thank you for your review Melanie. 🙂
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    • Melanie says:

      I do enjoy reading topics that deal with mental illness and like you, I hate it when it’s not properly portrayed. It pisses me of, and this was a prime example.

  4. Alreem says:

    I heard that you either love or hate this book, I hope I will be form the one who will love it 😀 lovely review 🙂
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  5. Kelly says:

    Mel, I feel you. I honestly do.
    I was actually enjoying this one even though I didn’t have the same investment in any of the characters either. I felt so incredibly sorry for Jam, I was emotional seeing how she struggled and even held that little jar of jam dear to her heart. But that all unraveled with the ending too. I couldn’t have said it better myself. I felt so incredibly cheated as well. I was angry that I’d been sucked in to care in the first place. It was shocking and cruel. It took me ages to process it as well. I still enjoyed it though, a book that makes me feel something, even anger is better than not feeling at all. I’m sorry you couldn’t have enjoyed this more. Absolutely brilliant review and hopefully your next read is much, much better <3
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    • Melanie says:

      Yeah, I quite liked the idea of this novel–especially Belzhar itself. I did feel sorry for Jam but I couldn’t really emphathise for her because I didn’t really like her to be honest. Yes, that is a very true fact! Having any emotion is better than no emotion at all.

      Thanks, Kels <33

  6. While the premise sounds really interesting, it seems that there were some executional problems with the story, Melanie. And even beautiful prose cannot really make up for a character that isn’t fleshed out enough. Even if it took you a while to be able to write your review, I’m very glad you did! It’s a great review, and it showed me exactly why I might have some problems with Belzhar as well, so thank you.
    Have a fantastic weekend and a great week!
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    • Melanie says:

      Why thank you, Lexxie! 🙂 I mainly struggled reviewing this because I kept thinking back to that ending, which pissed the hell out of me. Even now, I still can’t get over it <.<

  7. I hate those books that are pretty interesting and then the ending ruins it. Happy the writing was good but the concept is not catching me. And I hate not liking endings.
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  8. The cover is beautiful though, lol. I just gave the ARC (no pretty cover) of this book away in a Twitter contest, so now I don’t feel as bad about not having the time to read it. Maybe I’ll take a peek at the ending before I mail it out. 🙂
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  9. Naban says:

    This sounds like it could have been a great read, it’s sad it wasn’t executed just as well. And the ending sounds like it would be frustrating. I shall lower my expectations when I decide to give it a go, which I’m still debating over.

    Lovely review, girl! <33
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  10. Maddy E says:

    I’m really upset about this book. After reading the blurb, I was really excited. It sounds like it eally could be good. But then, (I know, I know, I’m terrible) I read your spoiler tags. God, that sounds like the exact thing that I makes me fume. I don’t want to say too much, because we are discussing spoilers here, but that hit really close to home for me. When authors don’t handle that the right way, I can’t like the book. It infuriates me, because I see that refusal to address it in real life and I don’t want that in a book.
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    • Melanie says:

      Oh you sneaking devil ;P But I am so glad that you agree with me, Maddy! Perhaps the author didn’t realise it was an actual illness, because it’s not exactly common but seriously, she wrote the book, and research needed to be done. Also, editors and beta readers! They should’ve picked up on that <.<

  11. Pili says:

    I have read quite a few other reviews of this book that had the same reaction and opinion of it that yours Melanie, so I’m just not going to bother with is at all. Tackling important issues like grief and mental illness shouldn’t be done lightly and superficially, if you’re gonna address big issues, do it in a commited way!
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    • Melanie says:

      Yeah, I checked out a few reviews after I finished my own and I’m so glad that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Thanks for stopping by, hun <33

  12. I’ve heard that this book is really impactful and has a great message or at least a great ending. I’m interested to try it out! Sorry you couldn’t connect to the characters and that the relationships didn’t seem genuine. Lovely review, Mel <33
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    • Melanie says:

      Are you sure you didn’t hear bad ending? I actually haven’t heard anyone who liked the ending, but hey, I guess some people might. I’d be really curious if you read this! Thanks, Rach <33

  13. I can’t tell you how many times i’ve attempted to read this book. I do, on occasion, delve into books where it features a mentally fragile/disturbed/ill character, but more often than not, they only frustrate me. And for the very reason why this book did not meet your expectations. Sorry you didn’t enjoy this one.
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  14. Yes to all of this, especially what you had in spoiler tags. The ending made me so furious. Jam just ended up looking like a fake compared to the other kids in the special topics class, and, honestly, that is just not how you deal with those kind of mental health issues, like you said. Very, very problematic all around.
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  15. I can so accept how you felt about this book Mel, it was such a shame about that ending, but I confess, I didn’t know it was an actual condition (in the spoiler tags), like woah, eyes opened! I was very disappointed with that ending and it did ruin the ending a little for me, but I admit, I was a little more attached the characters, so when certain things happened nearer the end, I admit, I was a little emotional, and the pasts the characters had, I was pretty emotionally affected, but as I say, I can understand how this wasn’t for you Mel, I’m so sorry..
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    • Melanie says:

      Yeah I didn’t know either until I saw something about it online and the more I read about the symptoms, the more it sounded like Jam. I’m glad that you enjoyed this book, despite that, Amanda! I quite enjoyed this one too (3.5 stars, if it weren’t for the ending in which I full on raged. That is so not the way you deal with mental illness.)

  16. Rachel says:

    I have a copy of this, I think, but I haven’t been inspired to pick it up. Now I’m wondering what the twist was at the end. I have a guess, but I don’t want to type it out here. Sorry this really ticked you off, Melanie! I hate it when that happens. 🙁 Great honest review. 🙂
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  17. I have heard a lot of mixed opinions of this one. I don’t know if I want to read it or not; I don’t like books with unsatisfying endings, it’s so disheartening to get through a whole book and then not like how it ended. And Jam and Griffin’s relationship sounds like something that will really annoy me. :/ Great review!
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  18. I think you reviewed this really well and fairly. 😉 I was just frustrated beyond WORDS. Ergh. I was mad at Jam…although that makes sense knowing it’s an actual disorder now. Whyyyy wasn’t that addressed and added into the book?! It would made me understand and feel for Jam and instead I’m like jUST STAHP WOMEN AND GET YOURSELF TOGETHER. *breaths deeply*
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    • Melanie says:

      I’m glad that you think so, Cait! Right? I hated Jam for it initially, then when I researched a bit and found out, I just felt even more pissed and confused. <.<

  19. Lexa Cain says:

    Wow, I got a lot out of reading your review and the other comments. It does seem very strange the author (and editor) didn’t deal with the mental issues better. If I’d read the book under a misconception that things were one way, but at the end found out they were another, I’d have felt cheated. Great review!
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    • Melanie says:

      Yeah, maybe the author didn’t realise that it was an illness? It’s pretty rare but I do remember it because my friends and I discussed it once (yeah…we have a habit of discussing these kinds of things), which led me to look it up. Thanks, Lexa 🙂

  20. I AGREE ABOUT THE ENDING. OH MY GOODNESS. Plus I didn’t like it already, so it got 2 stars. And it’s very hard to get a two-star rating from me – most things are 3.
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  21. It sounds like the romance here was completely unnecessary, why do YA authors feel the need to always include a romance, even though it was platonic to begin with? Us readers are perfectly comfortable with platonic friendships, in fact we welcome them. Great review Mel, you perfectly listed why this book didn’t sit well with you and what you enjoyed regardless.
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    • Melanie says:

      It was ABSOLUTELY unnecessary, Jeann. I mean, yay, the MC finds love but like sheesh, a story about a girl trying to get over a boy just makes the romance even more unnecessary. Thank you, Jeann! ^.^

  22. Wattle says:

    I haven’t heard of this book before, but I am sort of amused that my Goodreads friends reviews range from 4 start to 1 star (and that was because they couldn’t rate it any lower). I always find books that get such a broad reaction to be interesting, so I think this one will be going on my maybe list 😉

    Great review Mel! I thought it was very balanced and honest.
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    • Melanie says:

      Yeah, this one is getting a lot of mixed reviews–mainly because of that ending. I swear, if it weren’t for that, the ratings would be so much more positive. Thanks, Wattle! 😀

  23. Oh no, I HATE superficiality in relationships. Oooh, but it looked so good; the premise, writing. I badly simulatiously want to read it and stay away from this book. Either way, fantastic review!!
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    • Melanie says:

      Thanks, Lola! It’d be interesting to read your thoughts on this one, actually–it relies on how well you can relate to the characters and how much the ending impacts your overall thoughts, imo.

  24. I hate when an ending can ruin a book that much! 🙁 I’m definitely curious about this author, now, though and definitely want to sample her writing style. Wonderful review, Mel! 🙂
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  25. “This is just another classic example in YA books where someone meets someone else to help them move on.” THIS. I hate this trope SO MUCH. I mean, maybe for some people it’s realistic, but the relationships always magically seem to pull the characters out of their depression, which I just can’t buy. Although the writing sounds wonderful, that element of the plot – as well as what you said about the ending – is telling me that my decision to pass this book up was the right one. Thanks for letting me know that I should probably stay away from Belzhar. 🙂
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  26. I’ve heard quite mixed things about this book and even though I was intrigued to read it since it is magical realism and I’ve never read that genre (I think) but now I’m not so sure. You talked about many things that I dislike in YA novels, especially superficial relationship. It appears that is either that or insta-love and I honestly don’t get it. Thanks for the review Mel, you just made me make up my mind about this one ^^
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    • Melanie says:

      Magical realism is either a hit or miss for me. I love it sometimes, but other times IT IS SO FAR FETCHED. I actually did like that magical realism part in this book, but I’m not sure it’d be worth reading this if you just wanted a taste of that. No problem, Noelia 🙂

  27. Valerie says:

    Ahh I’m sorry this did not turn out well for you Mel! I have to say the beginning does seem intriguing, but I probably won’t like the characters either. And I read the spoiler. Yeah, the author should’ve done a better job with that. Anyways, I hope your next read is much better!
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  28. Oh dear. I have heard so many mixed things on this, and I must say, it does not bode well that none of the things in the blurb are evident in the story. I kind of detest shallow characters, so this does not sound promising for me. I do own it, so I will probably end up reading it, but I have very low expectations at this point. At least it’s a short book? I really hope the next book you read goes better!
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  29. I’ve heard mixed things about this but still think I’ll give it a try. I have the audiobook so hopefully that works :/ I read one of Woltizer’s other books, The Interestings, and thought it was pretty boring and had a lot of abrupt things that didn’t work. I’m not sure. I’ll try this one and if it doesn’t work, I probably won’t bother anymore!
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  30. You pretty much wrote my feelings on this book!

    The characters were so UNfleshed out and the BFF friendship really WAS abrupt, as was the romantic relationship between Jam + Griffin, who seemed to have absolutely nothing in common whatsoever.

    And the ending was completely unnecessary. Like you, I was pissed off because the real mental health issue behind it seemed to just be used as a plot device and “shock factor”. I didn’t appreciate how it was handled, and the wya it was revealed in the “you didn’t see this coming did ya?” kind of way.

    I laughed at your comment about not caring if the secondary characters randomly died because NEITHER WOULD I. I didn’t care less about them, especially since they were just inserted into the book as really long monologues.

    SIGH. I had so much hope for this book. I love Sylvia Plath SO MUCH, and there was nothing really about her, or her books in BELZHAR. :/
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  31. God yes, I totally agree with you. Especially everything in the spoilery section. I don’t understand how it got that blurb. I mean sure, it was surprising but not in the good way. I don’t see how it’s about acceptance at all though. That ending wasn’t acceptance, it was just a realisation of delusion.

    And Melanie “And I also know that pain can seem like an endless ribbon. You pull it and you pull it. You keep gathering it toward you, and as it collects, you really can’t believe that there’s something else at the end of it. Something that isn’t just more pain.” Even though sometimes you feel like the darkness isn’t so dark once you’ve been there for awhile, I promise that looking for the light is worth it. On your journey to find something other than darkness, you’ll realise that you’ve been healing. And you won’t understand why you stayed with the seemingly painless pain for so long. If you ever need to talk, I’m here. ♥
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