Black and white cover of Belzhar, with objects laid out including a pair of shoes, Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, and a pair of headphones

About the Book

Title: Belzhar
Published: 2014
Swoonworthy Scale: 6

Cover Story: Montell Jordan
BFF Charm: Eventually
Swoonworthy Scale: 6
Talky Talk: Stark & Stirring
Bonus Factors: Sylvia Plath, English Class, Mysterious Loner Dude
Relationship Status: Serious

Cover Story: Montell Jordan

GIF from Montell Jordan's music video "This Is How We Do It"

Given that Meg Wolitzer is an author of adult fiction, it makes sense that her first foray into YA comes with a totally legit cover. The black and white photograph matches the somber tone of the novel, while the items—the jar of jam, the melted candle, the copy of The Bell Jar, and, most importantly, the journal—tie directly to the story. This cover is artistic and enticing, and now I have the strange urge to pack a suitcase.

The Deal:

Normally I would be jealous of a girl sent to boarding school in Vermont, but there’s nothing to envy about Jam Gallahue. Her boyfriend, Reeve Maxfield, has died, suddenly and tragically, and now her world is colorless and cold without him. Crippled by grief, she’s shipped off to The Wooden Barn, a school for teens in recovery from a torturous spectrum of trauma. Jam plans to just go through the motions so she can return home to the safety of her bed as quickly as possible, but then she attends the first session of Special Topics in English, a small class of students handpicked by Mrs. Quenell, a teacher with a reputation for changing lives. Focused on the work of Sylvia Plath, the course includes a journaling component, and when Jam finally begins to write about her experience with Reeve, she encounters something startling and more than a little insane: The journal can transport her to a place where Reeve is alive and well. Jam’s fellow classmates make the same discovery, and together they decide to name this world Belzhar, a magical bubble of “before”—before darkness seeped in, before things went wrong, before everything crumbled.

But each visit to Belzhar requires five pages in a journal, so what happens when there’s no paper left?

BFF Charm: Eventually

BFF Charm with a sweatband on

When I first met Jam, she was broken and listless, and while I felt sorry for her, I was wary of taking on her emotional baggage. She’d been through something I couldn’t fathom, so I wasn’t sure if we could find common ground. But thanks to Special Topics, she starts to show signs of her former self, and I began to warm to this slyly funny, wonderfully pensive girl. Take, for instance, her attempt to help out at a local farm when a goat is in labor:

“Do you like poetry?” I ask the goat, absurdly. “Sylvia Plath wrote a poem about being pregnant. I think the end goes ‘I’ve eaten a bag of green apples / Boarded the train there’s no getting off.'”

Jam is a study in contrast, with traces of her former naivete lingering in the hardened bitterness of her loss, and while there’s nothing to be enjoyed about picking up the pieces of a shattered life, I was thankful to be by her side, weathering the storm together.

Swoonworthy Scale: 6

Reeve was an exchange student from London, so obviously, he’s dreamy, both in Jam’s memory and in Belzhar. Their clever banter is charming as all get out, although the shadow of doom lingering over their relationship knocks off a few swoon points.

And then there’s Griffin, the withdrawn tough guy in Special Topics. Maybe it’s because he’s an MLD, or maybe it’s because he’s, you know, alive, but there’s something about that boy that set my pulse a-racin’. No disrespect, Reeve, but from the moment I met Griffin, I was rooting for Jam to MOVE ON ALREADY.

Talky Talk: Stark & Stirring

Wolitzer writes in a deceptively plain style, each word weighted for maximum impact. She has a gift for creating atmosphere, and with each flip of a page, I felt a waft of emotion settle upon me like light Vermont snow. While not overly descriptive, her writing still paints a dynamic picture, such as this depiction of Reeve:

There was a scrape to his voice. And though I don’t have any idea of what people thought of him back in London, where that kind of accent is ordinary, to me his voice sounded like a lit match being held to the edge of a piece of brittle paper. It just exploded in a quiet burst. When he spoke I wanted to listen.

With this, her first YA novel, Wolitzer explores what happens when adolescence is robbed of its innocence, and her portrait of loss—and the devastating enlightenment that it births—is intensely compelling and wholly captivating.

Bonus Factor: Sylvia Plath

Black and white photo of Sylvia Plath, holding a book with a building behind her

The life and work of Sylvia Plath deeply resonates with Jam and her fellow classmates, and their studies are both a celebration of and a tribute to her remarkable talent.

Bonus Factor: English Class

Robin Williams teaching an English class in Dead Poet's Society with students gathered around him

One of the central themes in Belzhar is the power of writing, and it’s a lesson driven home in Special Topics:

Words matter. This is what Mrs. Q has basically been saying from the start. Words matter. All semester, we were looking for the words to say what we needed to say. We were all looking for our voice.

On the very first day of class, Mrs. Quenell makes a pronouncement that I want to plaster all over my house, my office, the planet Earth:

“Everyone,” she continues, looking around at all of us, “has something to say. But not everyone can bear to say it. Your job is to find a way.”

I thrilled in the message of Mrs. Q’s course, but even more, I loved the intimacy that grew from Jam and her fellow students learning something vitally important together. We’ve all (hopefully) had that one teacher who inspired us, that one class where a group of strangers came together and shared an extraordinary moment, and Special Topics perfectly captured that fleeting yet life-changing magic.

Bonus Factor: Mysterious Loner Dude

Picture of Jordan Catalano, a hot brooding stoner, in My So-Called Life

Reeve is hot and hostile, and the enigma of what landed him at The Wooden Barn only adds to his MLD appeal. As Jam says:

He’s one of those boys who can get away with being like this. Moody. Silent. There have been boys like that since the beginning of time, and there’s nothing to do but try not to let them get to you.

Yet they will get to you, every time. (And I sure don’t mind.)

Relationship Status: Serious

Book, from the moment we met, I knew this was no lighthearted affair. You were raw and real, with a complexity of feeling that absolutely mesmerized me. In spite of your heavy subject matter, you still managed to keep things exciting, and for every whimper of angst, there was a glimmer of dazzling insight. We’ve shared so much together, and the bond I feel with you won’t be unraveling any time soon.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received my free review copy from Dutton Books. This review was originally posted on Kirkus Reviews in exchange for monetary compensation, which did not affect or influence my opinions.

Sarah lives in Austin, and believes there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure, which is part of why she started FYA in 2009. Growing up, she thought she was a Mary Anne, but she's finally starting to accept the fact that she's actually a Kristy.