Wednesday, September 10, 2014
On a warm night in early July of that long-evaporated year, the Interestings gathered for the very first time. They were only fifteen, sixteen, and they began to call themselves the name with tentative irony. Julie Jacobson, an outsider and possibly even a freak, had been invited in for obscure reasons, and now she sat in a corner on the unswept floor and attempted to position herself so she would appear unobtrusive yet not pathetic, which was a difficult balance. The teepee, designed ingeniously though built cheaply, was airless on nights like this one, when there was no wind to push in through the screens. Julie Jacobson longed to unfold a leg or do the side-to-side motion with her jaw that sometimes set off a gratifying series of tiny percussive sounds inside her skull. But if she called attention to herself in any way now, someone might start to wonder why she was here; and really, she knew, she had no reason to be here at all....In Belzhar, Woltizer's new book "for teens," it is not a camp teepee toward which the characters are drawn, but a school for emotionally fragile children called The Wooden Barn. Unknown to each other in the school's early days, the students have arrived bearing secrets. Soon enough the core protagonists will forge camp-like bonds in a miniature English class focused on Sylvia Plath and facilitated by journal writing. They will learn, unlearn, and learn themselves. They will enter a mystical world called Belzhar, a condition or place that Wolitzer explains like this:
Belzhar lets you be with the person you've lost, or in Casey's case, with the thing she's lost, but it keeps you where you were before the loss. So if you desperately want what you once had, you can write it in your red leather journal and go to Belzhar and find it. But apparently you won't find anything new there. Time stops in Belzhar; it hangs suspended.Wolitzer's theme, in Belzhar, is second chances, and in order to have a second chance, you have to be honest with yourself, you have to know what really happened. Through Belzhar, Wolitzer transports these student-friends to the past. She builds a reckoning mirror and holds it steady.
Whereas The Interestings (which I reviewed for the Chicago Tribune here) was rich with detail and character asides, full of the messy, tangential sprawl of messy life, Belzhar is lean, plot-focused and plot-purposeful. Like We Were Liars, E. Lockhart's summer sensation, it harbors a secret within a secret that will keep readers turning pages.
But perhaps what I liked best was this simple and essential thing: Wolitzer has written a novel that reminds teens how much words matter. A message that must burn eternal.