Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Review: Belzhar (aka, WHAT.)

How could something so promising resolve itself so poorly? How can a narrative completely dismantle itself after the 80% mark? Who the hell edited this? Answers to these questions - and more! - I'd really like to have explained.... and here's why! 

Belzhar is the first young adult novel written by NYT Bestselling author Meg Wolitzer, who also wrote The Interestings. 

This novel follows the story of a girl named Jam - as in, Jamaica - Gallahue, who is sent to a boarding school for emotionally fragile teenagers in order to recover from the trauma of losing her boyfriend. There, she becomes a part of a five-person Special Topics in English class, which is said to be a transformative experience for the few students who are able to take part... only to realize shortly thereafter that it's because of the magical journals they're assigned to fill, which transport those writing in them to revisit the time just before their tragedy.

Boarding School? English Classes? Magical journals?! You'll notice a sharp disparity between the venom of my opener, and the sheer awesome that was that blurb. My sister certainly did, on our weekly tea date two weeks ago, after I opened the conversation with, "I just finished the worst book ever," and then proceeded to launch into a half an hour of lauding minutae of approximately 80% of the plot. As I paused to draw breath, she stopped me. "It sounds like you actually liked it!"

Oh, I did. I sat quietly on the floor of my room during a jam-packed Finals Week with one of my best friends sitting four feet away, studying dutifully at her desk, for a little over three hours. Well, strike that: I sat quietly for about two hours and forty minutes, until the silence was broken with a quick and disbelieving, "WHAT."

Let me make it perfectly clear: I was head-over-heels for this book. I am a firm believer in using journals as a therapeutic means of overcoming trauma, as well as Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, which is central to the plot of the novel. The entire thing was one great, big, beautiful allegory for confronting the difficulties of your past by writing it out, and I was ready to start a religion on this thing. I was ready for a full week of allied posts, like how to start your own journal, and my own personal reflections on my lifetime of journaling. I was ready to GO.

And then it FELL APART so damn quickly I felt like it was a narrative device. You can honestly stake the exact point in the novel where I checked out, the shift in interest altering so violently I thunked my head against the wall behind me in sheer, unconscious frustration. The climax of this story so fully altered all of the beautiful plot it had been doing such a fantastic job constructing in the first 4/5ths of the novel, I almost DNF'd. Not a joke.

I'm going to try  and describe the ultimate point of meltdown as abstractly as I can, but hopefully those of you who have also suffered through the last bit of this novel will understand.

Here's the thing: you have a purportedly contemporary novel, with fantasy elements. Those fantasy elements are explored in the first person narration, and corroborated by other similar characters to agree with your narrator. It's a solid means of constructing weird stuff - like magical transportation journals - into an otherwise normal plot. That is, of course, until you do something that makes the narrator - the first-person narrator, primary point of contact for everything that happens in the novel - UNRELIABLE.

This shatters any believability that the fantasy element actually exists, because if the only person we know who can give us a complete description of the element is a crazy person (even if the existence of the element is agreed upon by others) there's no reason we have to believe them. This un-believability didn't just take me out of the narrative, it ripped me out backwards and threw me against the wall. I read the same page six times, trying to understand, because clearly, there was something wrong with my comprehension ability if something that was just so great wasn't making sense anymore.

But no, it wasn't me. It was the book. And I'm glad I read it... but I'm even more glad that I finished it, because for a little bit there at the end, I didn't think I'd manage.

Final Verdict: Really, I think everyone should read the first 80% of this book, because it's honestly awesome. Then just feel free to close it, and never read past your bookmark.

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