Jam (short for Jamaica) is not happy to be at The Wooden Barn, a unique boarding school in rural Vermont for “emotionally fragile and highly intelligent” teens, but she understands that her parents were out of options. It’s been months since the loss of her beloved boyfriend, Reeve, but Jam is still not coping with normal life. She meets her new roommate, who seems nice but a little weird, and expects to stay in bed mourning, like she’s been doing at home.
Instead, Jam must attend classes, including the mysterious Special Topics in English about which her roommate is very jealous. Only five students are asked to join the class each semester, and all later report that it was transformative. The class’s unconventional teacher announces the first day that the class will focus on just one author, Sylvia Plath, for the whole semester and that each student will be required to write in a journal. She hands out red leather journals that look like antiques.
Even though Jam only knew Reeve for 41 days, she is inconsolable at his loss, but she reluctantly goes to class and is gradually pulled into Special Topics in English. Her four classmates are all strangers to her, but it is clear that each has suffered some sort of loss or emotional damage. They are all suffering privately, as they begin to study Plath and write in their journals. However, the journals have a secret power to transport the writer back to the comforting past where all was still well and whole (pronounce Belzhar out loud and think of Plath and you’ll understand the odd moniker the students came up with).
Very gradually, the five students begin to interact with each other because of the secret they share and slowly, they each begin to heal. Wolitzer covers a lot of ground with this novel, addressing serious topics like loss, life-changing injury, and depression and clearly showing that teens feel just as deeply (maybe more so) as adults, though the novel itself isn’t depressing; it’s ultimately uplifting and about recovery. The novel also focuses on the healing powers of reading and writing, which any book lover can appreciate. And, oh yeah, it’s a compelling, suspenseful story, too.
I was captivated by this audio book, which was well read, and both its real-world and supernatural elements. Besides showcasing Wolitzer’s talent for in-depth characters (which carries over perfectly into YA fiction), this novel is also very clever, interweaving details about Sylvia Plath with the modern-day students studying her, and the mysterious world they each visit after dark. And there are even some surprises along the way, as details of each student’s loss only gradually emerge. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and can’t wait to read more YA fiction from Wolitzer.
Note: Although I’ve never read any Sylvia Plath, I recently watched a movie about her life, Sylvia, starring Gweneth Paltrow, which very good.