But There’s Always Something Else At The End

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

I just finished Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer and I’m feeling unsure how I want to talk about it, other than just generally knowing I want to talk about my connection to this book. Whether or not I’ll “book talk” it later, I don’t know, but that’s the freedom I’ve given myself by hanging up my book reviewer hat.

What Belzhar Is About:

Belzhar is about a girl who gets sent to a school for kids with “issues” and they are supposed to heal. The main character has lost her boyfriend and gets sent there because she is unable to cope with it. She gets put in a special English class and there are only like 4 other kids in the class and it’s SUCH a hard class to get into and nobody knows how anyone gets picked…but every year kids in this class proclaim it as life-changing. When she gets in the class, she realizes they are going to be studying the works of Sylvia Plath the whole semester and they are given a journal writing assignment that leads her and her classmates to Belzhar…a place they all almost can’t believe is real.

I don’t want to give anymore away than that, but I immediately knew this was going to be an interesting book for me. The Bell Jar changed my life, so I was interested to see how the works of Sylvia Plath would change these kids.

My first Bell Jar reading experience:

I was a senior in high school. My mom had just been diagnosed with brain cancer and was told she had maybe 6 months to live (she ended up living for 2 years though, FIGHTER she was). The chaos that was unleashed on the day of that diagnosis forever altered my life. It wasn’t an after-school special where we rallied around each other and lived out her last days frolicking in the sun and such. There was anger that none of us knew what to do with. And that anger became as volatile as an active volcano. One night, everything was too much and I left. I packed a bag and called a friend and I left. I ended up living at a friend’s house for a month or so (a friend who, I might add, had the perfect Full House kind of family which made it harder for me). I only saw my family in counseling sessions until I returned home.

I was feeling very alone and, while thankful for the family housing me,  just felt like nobody understood. I was in this violent sea of anger and confusion and grief, just being thrashed by waves and feeling like I couldn’t keep afloat. I went to the library and decided to give The Bell Jar a try. No idea why. I just had heard of it and decided I wanted to read it. I will never forget reading this book in a room that was not mine, surrounded by people who couldn’t understand what I was going through. I stayed in that bed until it was over and I wept and I wept and I wept.

Someone finally put words to what I was feeling. I no longer felt alone. Or crazy. I understood Esther and that feeling of all-consuming isolation, like you are absolutely alone, trapped inside a bell jar nobody can even penetrate. I wrote like crazy after that experience — I knew I had to get it all out. I felt the tiniest light of hope in one of the darkest and confusing times of my life. That book helped me out of it in a way.

My experience reading Belzhar:

The characters in Belzhar know that bell jar feeling so well. As they each reveal their stories, you see the aching loneliness they have because of situations in their life. Soul-crushing pain and grief and guilt and confusion. There was one quote in particular that just really encapsulated both of our experiences:

Belzhar quote

But then they start reading Plath & writing in their journals. And these words – they save in a way. They let us know we aren’t alone. They allow us to feel outside of ourselves, which is exactly what helped the numbness dissipate for me. They give voice to things you couldn’t even assemble into words. Let you slip into somebody else’s life for a bit or get an outside look in to your own life.

Belzhar Meg Wolitzer

If I read The Bell Jar prior to that year, I probably wouldn’t have felt the way I did about it on a personal level. But words find you and take you where you need to go. Just like they did the characters in Belzhar — though definitely in a more physical way.

Reading Belzhar reminded me of the power of words and how healing they can be — whether they are the ones we breathe into ourselves or the ones we put out into the world for others to breathe in. It reminded me of how sometimes you read a book that your soul really needed you to read. It reminds you of your humanness and that we don’t have to share the burden alone. That’s what I loved about the English class in Belzhar. They didn’t have to share their burdens alone anymore — they had each other to share their pains and their guilt and the weight of the world they were each carrying.

And it reminded me of the hope…

There is more to that ribbon passage I shared above. It continues:

Belzhar quotes

It’s the kind of hope I had at the end of The Bell Jar that is mirrored in this book. When I read the end I saw that Esther knew that things weren’t going to be automatically easy, but she had reached the end of the ribbon where there was something other than infinite pain. She knew she could still descend into that madness and it would be hard, but there was hope. And 18-year-old Jamie, who felt so lost and knew that harder things were going to come because a cancer was currently wreaking havoc on her mom’s brain? She needed to know there was going to be something at the end of that ribbon. Something different. That it wouldn’t be endless pain.

As I read Belzhar I found myself instantly transported back to that time in my life and reminded of how powerful words can be. Things have been rough here in the present — not hopeless, but hard enough that it’s tough remember to have hope — and I think reading this book took me to a Belzhar of my own…a Belzhar I needed to go to right now.

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About Jamie

Jamie is a 30 year old married lady who is in denial that she’s actually that old. When she’s not reading you can find her doing Pilates followed by eating ice cream, listening to music with oversized headphones and having adventures with her husband and dog.

Comments

  1. My heart goes out to you Jamie, such a lot to experience at such a young age. I really appreciate your honesty in writing this post and your raw pain that you aren’t afraid to expose. I was looking for a classic to read this month and already had The Bell Jar in mind but you have made my mind up for me now. That’s the one.
    I’m glad Belzhar was another book that resonated deeply within and that you found inspiring and hopeful. It’s so powerful when a book can move us like that.

  2. Such a beautiful review!!! I honestly want to read this too, since I love writing as well! If only travel was part of it too! <3

  3. Wow, Jamie, this is beautiful. You have a beautiful way with words and my heart truly goes out to you. I don’t know how or if I would have been able to get through something like that at that age. I haven’t read Bell Jar, but now I really want to and now I’m looking forward to Belzhar that much more.

  4. You may think you’re not a reviewer, but you still have a way with featuring books and making people want to read them, Jamie! I’m glad BELZHAR resonated so much with you and that you weren’t afraid to share your experience. Your posts are always so real, which is what we love about you. 🙂 I should bump this one higher up my list!

  5. Wow. If that’s not a review, I don’t know what it is – because to me, a review makes you want to read the book, or tells you why you shouldn’t, and I SO need to get to this book immediately. I don’t think I’ll have the same connection as you had, Jamie, because obviously, I don’t have your experiences, and I haven’t read The Bell Jar. But nevertheless, the quotes that you put in (the endless ribbon is such a gorgeous and honest metaphor) and the way you experienced the book, and the hints of what we could experience? I want that, too.

    I am so glad you found The Bell Jar at the right time in your life. I totally understand that “perfect book for the perfect time” feeling – it doesn’t happen that often, but when it does, it helps and heals so much. I have a few of those – I think A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle saved and changed my life, and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf completely shaped my worldview.

    I just want to give 18-year old Jamie a hug, and I always want to see Present Jamie smiling. I hope things get better – please know that we all support and love you!

  6. I’m so happy to see that Belzhar made an impact on you. I’m a huge Meg Wolitzer fan and was nervous reading it since I don’t usually read YA, but I adored it. Then I was a little scared that it might not work for regular fans of YA. It seems like it does have great crossover appeal, though, both because of its connection to Bell Jar and the feelings it brings back in the end.

  7. Oh my gosh, Jamie. I just want to hug you. I can’t even imagine going through that in high school and I’m so glad that you read the Bell Jar at a time that you needed it! I read the Bell Jar back in college and really loved it as well — I can’t wait for Belzhar and to see what I think about it. I like that it has that hopeful message – that there IS something at the end.

  8. It’s one of the things about books that I love most. Authors have a way with words, and words can be so powerful. Books helped me at a time I was feeling very lonely as well, and I am so glad for that, because it is what pulled me through (as well as the help of my family).
    I actually haven’t read the Bell Jar yet, something which I will be rectifying soon. Thank you for your honesty, and for sharing your story with us!
    (hugs!)

  9. I hope you don’t mind, but I tagged you for the Murder Mystery Tag.
    http://marie-myramblings.blogspot.com/2014/09/murder-mystery-tag.html
    🙂

  10. For some odd reason, I always thought of The Bell Jar as an intimidating book. I don’t know if that makes sense. What you’ve said about both these books though, makes me feel like I should try to read them. Thank you for sharing your story. My grandfather past away a few years ago, and then almost a year later from that, we found out my dad had cancer. (He’s doing good now though, but as with cancer it could come back at any time.) I had a hard time with all of that and I wish I could have found something that helped me in that moment. Time helps though.

  11. This is probably one of the best books reviews I’ve read in a very long time.

  12. Jamie, this is seriously one of the best reviews I’ve ever read!! I love how you connected your personal experience to the story. It was truly touching. You’re amazing. *hugs* On another note, this book sounds amazing. Luckily I know a sweet blogger friend who gave me her copy so I can read it soon! <3 But seriously, PHENOMENAL review.

  13. Jamie, this is just a beautiful post and I am so happy that I stumbled upon it as I was browsing reviews on GR. I just wanted to let you know that I thought your post was wonderful. That’s all. 🙂

Trackbacks

  1. […] Jamie on reading The Bell Jar and Belzhar. […]

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