Friday, July 22, 2016

Double Review: "Belzhar" and "The Bell Jar"

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
originally 4 stars, now 2.5-3

I first heard about and met Meg Wolitzer at a Half Price Books author event and after hearing her talk about this book, I had to go pick it up. It was such an interesting concept and I'm a sucker for boarding school stories, so I was pretty excited about it. You could almost call this a retelling of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, which is why I decided to read the classic after this and am reviewing them together now.

The basic story is about a girl, Jam, who goes through a horrible, life-changing event and is sent to a boarding school for troubled youth. First of all, yes, her name is Jam. I kind of liked it but I know it irritated some people (my middle sister for one, who I gave this to after I finished it). Jam's boyfriend, the fiendishly handsome and British Reeve, dies suddenly and Jam can't cope with it. It's been a year and her parents have done everything they can think of so the school is their last hope. Of course, Jam is resistant to any help at first until she is enrolled in a special writing class with a few other hand-chosen people. All of these students have suffered extra horrible losses and problems in their lives and their teacher feels they need extra help.

Their teacher requires them to read Plath's book, along with her other work, and keep a personal journal for the semester. She provides these journals and the group soon realizes there is something extra special about them. As they progress, the group gets closer and begins to talk about their individual traumas and heal. All except Jam. She bonds with the group, yes, but still refuses to talk about the day Reeve died. We get plenty of flashbacks showing their relationship but that's it. I felt for her, I really did, the pain she was feeling was real and intense. But. However. And then. A thing happens and the story changes and I felt betrayed as a reader. (I'm trying to be as general as possible here to avoid spoilers for those who still want to read it.)

Have you ever had that feeling of betrayal while reading a book? I felt it a bit in Harry Potter when we find out Snape's true story but I was happy for that reveal. I was not happy about this one. And it completely changed how I viewed this book. My sister felt the same way. So take that with a grain of salt if you still plan on reading this one.

“We're talking about the novel, right? But maybe we're not. 
We're talking about ourselves. And I guess that's what can start to 
happen when you talk about a book.”

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
3.5 stars

This is a classic that I'm finding hard to review. Actually, I'm finding it hard to call it a classic, but it is, don't you think? Does it belong with To Kill a Mockingbird and The Grapes of Wrath? Would it be considered a modern classic, even though it's set in the 1950s and seems incredibly outdated reading it now? Semantics aside, I am glad I read it and think it's a story that many people can relate to and will benefit from reading.

Considered an autobiography of sorts for Plath, this book tells the story of Esther Greenwood and the summer she has a mental breakdown. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo. Esther is in New York, working for a fashion magazine on a scholarship/contest she won. She tries her hardest to fit in with all the other fashionable girls, but deep down she knows she's a fraud from a small midwestern town. This eats at her soul until she starts to crack.

We see Esther falling apart, eventually attempting suicide, and being sent to a mental hospital, where she undergoes electroshock therapy. Her story is told honestly and with little embellishment, because it's not needed. It's horrifying enough on its own, with just the facts. Yes, this is a hard story to read but it's worth it.

eta: I originally had this review scheduled for Wednesday, but I didn't get it written in time. I wish I had because it was the perfect day with the news of the movie coming out!

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