I’ve long believed that through writing, we have the power to transform ourselves and our experiences. It’s why I journal every morning, even when there are a million other things waiting to get done; it’s why I’ve taught writing classes to kids, teens, and senior citizens; and it’s why I wanted to read this book the moment I read my first review about it.
It rests on the concept that when a group of traumatized teens write in these certain journals, they are transported to an alternate reality where they can get back something they have lost. For the main character, that is the chance to spend time with her boyfriend who has died. The other four teens in her class who also have the journals have their own experiences to work through various traumas.
There are certain rules to this place, such as that it takes five pages of writing every time you make a trip there, and that you can’t do anything there you haven’t actually done in real life. These rules imposed a constraint on the experience that made me feel as if the characters should quickly get tired of it and itch to allow their real lives to unfold, but all of them stayed attached to the idea of returning to Belzhar throughout the entire semester. I liked the metaphor about the way writing can allow you to escape and also to face your demons, but I was hoping for more commentary about how or why visiting Belzhar was helpful to these students, and what might make them ready to live in the real world after spending two days there a week. The main character felt real to me, even her somewhat exaggerated heartbreak over a relationship she lost after only 42 days — there is, after all, a certain amount of lost hopes in something that ends so abruptly that must be grieved — but the rest of the characters seemed to come just shy of feeling fully fleshed out. As an author primarily known for her books for adults, something about Belzhar felt a little self-conscious to me, as if Wolitzer were trying just a little too hard to get this teen thing right. The class instructor felt a little too wise, the students a little too reverent and earnest. And it was as if the whole world outside of this one particular class didn’t even exist — I don’t remember any mention of other classes or other students aside from the mc’s roommate and her forced extracurricular participation in a singing group.
I also felt that family threads were left unresolved, particularly the one involving the younger brother.
There was a little bit of a twist at the end, which I liked.
The truth is, this book is leagues better than a lot of other books I’ve also rated three stars. I just think that, with a subject that is so dear to me, I expected a whole lot more.