Book Review: 'Belzhar' By Meg Wolitzer
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And now, a new young adult novel by a beloved writer which takes its inspiration from Sylvia Plath. You might be able to tell since it's called "Belzhar." Gabrielle Zevin has our review.
GABRIELLE ZEVIN: Parts of Meg Wolitzer's "Belzhar" could have come from a YA novel factory - a dreamy, slim-hipped boy and of course, the ordinary girl who loves him, our narrator, Jam Gallahue - or should I say loved him?
The book begins in an appealingly straightforward first person. (Reading) I was sent here because of a boy. His name was Reeve Maxfield, and I loved him, and then he died.
Here is a boarding school for emotionally fragile, highly intelligent teenagers. It won't be a spoiler to tell you that Reeve appears throughout the book. Is he a ghost - a product of our grieving narrator's fragile mind? Or maybe it's those strangely uncanny journals Jam and her classmates have been keeping. Yes, the journals are magical. They have the power to transport Jam and her classmates to the people and things they'd lost. The teens call this going to Belzhar, an homage to the Plath novel they're studying.
Stories for young readers often use fantastical elements as a way of addressing life's grand themes, and Belzhar uses its magic-realist premise to discuss big questions. Is it better to live in the past? How much do we invent the people we love? Good stuff - and there's a lot of good stuff in "Belzhar." The setting of the boarding school is delicious, and there's a nifty twist that should devastate many-a teen reader.
But as a huge fan of Meg Wolitzer's writing for adults, I was disappointed. Wolitzer seems to shy away from the more messy pleasures of the novel - from truly complex characters and ideas.
Still, the voice of her grieving teen is convincing, and often funny. (Reading) I guess I feel like grief is this huge part of everything, Wolitzer writes. But you're supposed to act like it's not. Like, if you lose someone, how are you supposed to go on caring about stupid day-to-day things like whether a test will be hard or whether you have split ends?
Wolitzer is always worth reading and there's nothing wrong with "Belzhar." It's a good YA novel, just not a great one.
BLOCK: "Belzhar" is by Meg Wolitzer. Our reviewer, Gabrielle Zevin's, latest book is "The Storied Life Of A.J. Fikry." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.