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.

It’s Not You, It’s Me….Or Is It? I Don’t Freaking KNOW!

Oh George. <3

I read a book recently and I had a hard time getting into it. I didn’t care to pick it up and I just didn’t feel connected. I decided to pick it up and just finish it and after reading for a bit I found myself totally into it.

But here’s the thing…I had to wonder if it was my fault or if I truly didn’t like the book at first. I had been at the beach and really just busy every weekend. I had just picked it up here and there and would get interrupted. There were a lot of external forces that were competing for my attention and possibly contributing to my disconnect with the book. It’s when I had a large junk of time to devote to it that I was really into it.

And I wonder this a lot when I read a book. Does my state of mind or the time I have to devote reading to it or even WHERE I’m reading it contribute to how I judge a book? Sometimes I’ll read a book and think, “I probably would have enjoyed that more if I wasn’t so stressed” or “If I was in the mood for that type of book I think I would have had a better experience”. So then I sit there and wonder if I really just didn’t LIKE a book because of the book itself (and no matter if I was sitting on a hammock in some tropical oasis would I ever in hell like this book) or would I have actually liked the book if my reading of it was more focused or if I wasn’t so upset about something. Do I need to say, “Book, it wasn’t you. It was me. I wasn’t emotionally there. I should have read you when I was more relaxed, etc.” Or do I need to just move on and say, “Book, straight up. It’s YOU. You suck. I can’t blame myself for your inadequacies.”

Now make no mistake, I don’t think this every time I dislike a book BUT there are some instances where I have to wonder when I start to reflect about my feelings of the book to write the review.

Does anybody else ever have this problem? Do you ever wonder your dislike for a book has to do with YOU or some other external force or did you just really not like the book and nothing could change that?

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