Author: Meg Wolitzer
Published: September 2014
Publisher: Dutton Juvenile
Bought: £7.99 Waterstones
Rating: four stars
Rating: four stars
A group of emotionally fragile, highly intelligent teenagers gather at a therapeutic boarding school where they are mysteriously picked for 'Special Topics in English'. Here, they are tasked with studying Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and keeping a journal.
Each time the students write in their diaries they are transported to a miraculous other world called Belzhar. Here, they are no longer haunted by their trauma and grief - each begin to tell their own story.
*Synopsis from back of book*
So, I can't lie when I started this book I was a bit mislead by the first line: "I was sent here because of a boy." I thought to myself 'ah hell, this book is going to be appallingly cliché'. (And I did manage to guess the love interest 30 pages in.) It all sounded a bit typical, and at some points it definitely was.
But I was enjoying it, because all the main characters had a little something extra to them. The Special Topics English class was rich with well-rounded characters I could feel for. Sierra especially, I just wanted to fall into the book and talk with her. Jam was vividly put to page, I didn't always like her, with her love-dumbness in the beginning, and that something was concealed from us for so long was almost too much. At the same time she weaned herself into my emotions even before I could understand her. She's so perceptive of other people and I don't think I was perceptive enough of her.
By the end it all made sense. I'd forgotten that this was a school for the "emotionally fragile", especially because the image of the school itself didn't come across very clearly to me. The fact that she'd created this perfect imaginary scenario out of a very different reality really stood out for me. And in the end, though not fully recovered she's positive about her future, she's positive about life outside of the school - which made me feel good.
I was left feeling, like the English student I am, that the magic notebooks were all just some huge metaphor for their recovery, for realising what went wrong and how to deal with it. Or as Jam puts it, how to find their voice.
"Words matter. All semester, we were looking for the words to say what we needed to say. We were all looking for our voice."
I've got to give it to the author, she can say some beautiful things. But the road did seem a little bumpy, because she can also say some cliché and slightly forced in things that didn't make me think that it actually was the mind of a teenager.
So overall I liked the twistiness of this novel and the romance was sweet without being too overpowering. It was a story of recovery and of finding a voice, and in the end I did enjoy it.