Beyond Books

Belzhar [a book review of sorts]

by Meg Wolitzer

I stopped blogging about books last year. I wasn’t reading many books as it was, and the thought of having to find time to write about what I just read (and edit the cover images the way I do) was way too overwhelming. I was broken for a while; I was healing for a while. I think I am still healing, and always will be. And although I am still not reading nearly as much as I used to, I have rediscovered the desire to blog about the occasional book I have read.

So, to start things off well for my OCD… I am going to tell you about the first book I read, and finished, in 2015. Belzhar is a young adult novel about a girl named Jam who experiences a bit of a breakdown and is sent away to a school in Vermont called The Wooden Barn. This school helps teens heal from their problems without medication and without having to go to a psychiatric hospital. It’s a sort of half-way house in a way.

I thought this book was going to be a lot more like a retelling of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar because that book is one of the topics in this story. I was surprised with the turn the story took and the way everything unfolded. It wasn’t what I thought the book was going to be and I liked that a lot.

Jam is selected for an “elite” Special Topics in English class. Elite in the way that only four or five students are selected in a semester. The class, taught by the older Mrs. Q, only learns one author for the semester. The semester that Jam enters, that author is Sylvia Plath. There are four other students in the class, two other girls, and two boys. Each student is given a red leather journal to write in. They are two write twice a week and turn in the journals at the end of the semester.

There was something about this book that resonated with me. I always have a special place in  my heart for books about teens with mental illness, and although this wasn’t exactly the kind of story I thought it would be, I was very engaged in the story. I might have thought Jam was a little over-the-top with her infatuation over her dead boyfriend (after knowing him only 41 days), but I got that she was trying to deal with the grief of losing him, so of course she would be dwelling on their time together. Jam was actually the character I found the least interesting of all 5 students in that class.

There are many mixed reviews out there about this book. I was reading some after I read the book myself and enjoyed it. I wanted to see what other people thought. I completely understand the problems some readers had with the story, and yet for some reason, I don’t have the same problems. I feel like I would have them normally because the points made are really very valid. There is little character development in the story, but that honestly didn’t bother me when I read it. I was fully enjoying what I was reading as it was presented, and I didn’t think much into what wasn’t there. I think there are many ways to tell a story about mental illness, and this was one that had a twist I wasn’t expecting. I don’t think this makes it less meaningful, or disrespectful of people with mental illness. I like to think of it as art. Not everyone will paint a flower or an apple the same way. There are different ways to visualize your interpretation of an object. Someone’s flower might look nothing like a flower, but to them, that’s how they want to show it to the world, or how they see it. There was nothing in this story that made me think that mental illness is a joke, or not a real thing. It was just a lighter version of a very heavy subject.

I am pleased with my first read of 2015, and I hope that my ability to read, and get lost in story, will come back to me this year. I have a bunch of “outside-of-my-comfort-zone” books on a list that looked interesting to me, and I hope to branch out in my reading this year. I will stop when I need to stop a book, I will read whatever interests me at the time. And perhaps, just perhaps, I’ll blog about the books I read. Obviously that’s all happening here on my personal blog, as I closed up shop on my book blog last year.

I’m trying to find the joy in my regularly enjoyed activities again. I feel like 1 3/4 years after my trauma, I should be able to find myself again. No pressure, but sometimes you have to manually put yourself back up on that horse and let muscle memory take over.

Have you read any great books about mental illness (not just YA)? I’d love to know about them. I have a nice collection of books about issues like this: depression, suicide, eating disorders. I know it sounds weird, but I find these sorts of books comforting. And helpful with my own healing process.


  • Kay (@dbookdarling)

    I can’t say this book sounds up my alley, but I completely understand your attraction. I think it is the same thing that drives me towards books with angry, hurt female characters forced to deal with things. It can help seeing something hard happening to someone else… (that sounded wrong, but you know what I mean)

    Can’t say I have any recs along this vein – but VERY happy to see this review! Hope your reading mojo returns – I know from experience that it can be a hard thing to get back into, especially after a trauma. 😕

    • Cat

      I truly wish there had been more (any?) books about mental illness and issues like this when I was a teen – and younger. I probably wouldn’t have felt so alone.

      I know exactly what you mean by your comment, too. One of the best things about reading is getting to, I don’t know, find therapy from a book. Or something like that. I love connecting with books when I read them. I also enjoy light, fluffy, fun reads that don’t turn me inside out. But I do love those deep connections with books!

  • Caroline Taylor

    I read this at the end of last year and like you, I absolutely loved it. I found a few things in it really resonated with me and I now cherish this book dearly. Its second only in the books I read last year to We Were Liars (have you read that?)
    I have noticed more books about mental health are popping up, 2 I have in my pile ready to read are:
    *All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
    *My Heart & Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga

    • Cat

      I have not read We Were Liars, though I have been told I need to read it! I spent most of last year borrowing books from the library and not buying them. Library doesn’t have it, so I haven’t read it yet. I got gift cards for Christmas, so I bought a few books this year. 😉 I DID get All The Bright Places! It’s on my list to read this weekend. 😉

      I don’t think I know about My Heart & Other Black Holes, so I am going to go check that out now. Thanks!!

  • Caroline Taylor

    I forgot to add I recently read Amy & Matthew by Cammie McGovern (it is called Say What You Will in the US) and the male character in that suffers from OCD, I really enjoyed that as I suffer from it too.

    • Cat

      Oh! I saw that book. I keep thinking it’s a non-fiction, self-help book when I see it. Something about the cover.

      I think my library has this one, so I will certainly check it out this year! Thank you!

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