There are no spoilers in this review, I pinkie swear.
Jam Gallahue is in love, in that bubblegum hormone-fueled hurts-so-good way. She’s in love with a smooth, hot British exchange student, and she knows that this is the real deal.
“Our entire relationship consisted of smiling, smirking, and saying funny things to each other. But I wanted our shoulder to touch. It was as if I thought our shoulders could almost communicate.”
You remember that feeling, right?
So she’s in this relationship where they don’t really have much to say to each other, they just have a mutual understanding of their avowed until death-do-us-part love. Oh and btw, they discovered this love 16 days after they met for the first time.
Fast forward a bit: the boyfriend dies after 25 days of dating (this is not a spoiler), and Jam enters such a state of grief that after one year she still hasn’t emerged. If you are thinking that her grieving seems...like she has deeper issues to deal with… you wouldn’t be alone in that. Her parents send her to a special boarding school for teens that need non-medicated psychological support.
At the school, Jam is placed in an exclusive, invite-only “special topics” English class with an intimate handful of other students. They study Sylvia Plath (hence the wordplay between The Bell Jar and Belzhar) the entire semester, and like Plath, must make regular journal entries throughout. These journals come with a special ability to help the students process their grief and pain in a very unique way.
Throughout the book, I was interested in the story, but had to keep taking two-second reading breaks to roll my eyes. I really dislike romances where the characters don’t show me how they have a long-term sustainable relationship based on something other than, “I just knew it,” or “We had a special connection.” I couldn’t get past how Jam was so in love with a guy that she knew for approximately a month, and whom we as the reader know nothing about besides she thinks he’s hot.
I’m glad I kept reading, however (full disclosure: until 3am). The author, Meg Wolitzer, is not a bad writer of romances, and everything made sense in such a clear way in the end. It’s one of those endings that makes you think back and remember all the clues and hints that were dropped along the way. Like, “Duh, dumb Alisa, why didn’t you pay more attention!?”
As the book progresses, Jam begins another relationship with a guy at the boarding school. She struggles with feeling like she is cheating on the dead British bloke, but Wolitzer makes an elegant contrast between the ways the two different guys treat Jam. It’s not in-your-face and preachy, like some authors that are new to the YA club tend to be. The ongoing comparisons are quiet and demure, yet I think that it could help out a reader who is wondering if their current relationship is healthy or not.
Despite my review’s focus on the romances in the story, the Belzhar’s overall message isn’t about dating. All of the characters are trying to stay living in the past, and are missing out on the present as a consequence. The story is built to illustrate the problems of being too self-abrading with mistakes (hellooo, perfectionist self!), and left me with a powerful punch of one of my favorite self-affirmations: You cannot go back. You can only go forward.