TIME magazine Top YA of 2014
"Wolitzer has imagined a world for young readers that celebrates the sacred, transcendent power of reading and writing." —The New York Times Book Review
There’s a place where the lost go to be found.
If life were fair, Jam Gallahue would still be at home in New Jersey with her sweet British boyfriend, Reeve Maxfield. She’d be watching old comedy sketches with him. She’d be kissing him in the library stacks.
She certainly wouldn’t be at The Wooden Barn, a therapeutic boarding school in rural Vermont, signed up for an exclusive, supposedly life-changing class called Special Topics in English that focuses—only and entirely—on the works of Sylvia Plath.
But life isn’t fair. Reeve has been gone for almost a year and Jam is still mourning.
When a journal-writing assignment leads Jam into a mysterious other world she and her classmates call Belzhar, she discovers a realm where the untainted past is restored, and she can feel Reeve’s arms around her once again. But, as the pages of her journal begin to fill up, Jam must to confront hidden truths and ultimately decide what she’s willing to sacrifice to reclaim her loss.
From New York Times bestselling author Meg Wolitzer comes a breathtaking and surprising story about first love, deep sorrow, and the power of acceptance.
About the Author
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:May 28, 1959
Place of Birth:Brooklyn, New York
Education:B.A., Brown University, 1981
Read an Excerpt
I WAS SENT HERE BECAUSE OF A BOY. HIS NAME was Reeve Maxfield, and I loved him and then he died, and almost a year passed and no one knew what to do with me. Finally it was decided that the best thing would be to send me here. But if you ask anyone on staff or faculty, they’ll insist I was sent here because of “the lingering effects of trauma.” Those are the words that my parents wrote on the application to get me into The Wooden Barn, which is described in the brochure as a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teenagers.
On the line where it says “Reason student is applying to The Wooden Barn,” your parents can’t write “Because of a boy.”
But it’s the truth.
When I was little I loved my mom and dad and my brother, Leo, who followed me everywhere and said, “Jammy, wait.” When I got older I loved my ninth-grade math teacher, Mr. Mancardi, even though my math skills were deeply subnormal. “Ah, Jam Gallahue, welcome,” Mr. Mancardi would say when I came to first period late, my hair still wet from a shower; sometimes, in winter, with the ends frozen like baby twigs. “I’m tickled that you decided to join us.” He never said it in a nasty tone of voice. I actually think he was tickled.
I was in love with Reeve in a fierce way that I’d never been in love with anyone before in all my fifteen years. After I met him, the kinds of love I’d felt for those other people suddenly seemed basic and lame. I realized there are different levels of love, just like different levels of math. Down the hall in school back then, in Advanced Math, a bunch of geniuses sat sharing the latest gossip about parallelograms. Meanwhile, in Mr. Mancardi’s Dumb Math, we all sat around in a math fog, our mouths half open as we stared in confusion at the ironically named Smart Board.
So I’d been in a very dumb love fog without even knowing it. And then, suddenly, I understood there was such a thing as Advanced Love.
Reeve Maxfield was one of three tenth-grade exchange students, having decided to take a break from his life in London, England, one of the most exciting cities in the world, to spend a semester in our suburb of Crampton, New Jersey, to live with dull, cheerful jock Matt Kesman and his family.
Reeve was different from the boys I knew—all those Alexes, Joshes, and Matts. It wasn’t just his name. He had a look that none of them had: very smart, slouching and lean, with skinny black jeans hanging low over knobby hip bones. He looked like a member of one of those British punk bands from the eighties that my dad still loves, and whose albums he keeps in special plastic sleeves because he’s positive they’re going to be worth a lot of money someday. Once I looked up one of my dad’s most prized albums on eBay and saw that someone had bid sixteen cents for it, which for some reason made me want to cry.
The covers of my dad’s albums usually show a bunch of ironic-looking boys standing together on a street corner, sharing a private joke. Reeve would have fit right in. He had dark brown hair swirling across a pale, pale face, because apparently there’s no sunlight in England. “Really? None? Total darkness?” I’d said when he insisted this was true.
“Pretty much,” he’d said. “The whole country is like a big, damp house where the electricity’s been turned off. And everyone’s lacking vitamin D. Even the queen.” He said all this with a straight face. There was a scrape to his voice. And though I don’t have any idea what people thought of him back in London, where that kind of accent is ordinary, to me his voice sounded like a lit match being held to the edge of a piece of brittle paper. It just exploded in a quiet burst. When he spoke I wanted to listen.
I also wanted to look at him nonstop: the pale face, the brown eyes, the flyaway hair. He was like a long beaker in chemistry class, and the top was always bubbling over because some interesting process was taking place inside.
I’ve now compared Reeve Maxfield to both math and chemistry. But in the end the only class that came to matter in all of this was English. It wasn’t my English class at Crampton Regional; it was the one I took much later, at The Wooden Barn up in Vermont, after Reeve was gone and I could barely live.
For reasons I didn’t understand, I was one of five students tapped to be in a class called Special Topics in English. What happened in that class is something that none of us have ever talked about to anyone else. Though of course we think about it all the time, and I imagine we’ll think about it for the rest of our lives. And the thing that amazes me the most, the thing I keep obsessing about, is this: If I hadn’t lost Reeve, and if I hadn’t been sent away to that boarding school, and if I hadn’t been one of five “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teenagers in Special Topics in English, whose lives had been destroyed in five different ways, then I would never have known about Belzhar.
“JESUS, JAM, YOU’D BETTER GET UP ALREADY,” SAYS my roommate, DJ Kawabata, an emo girl from Coral Gables, Florida, with “certain food issues,” as she put it vaguely. She looms over my bed, her black hair hanging in my face. Because of DJ, our room is a treasure hunt of hidden food: Twizzlers, granola bars, boxes of raisins, even a squeeze bottle of some off-brand of ketchup called, I think, Hind’s, as if the company hoped that people would get confused and buy it. All of it has been planted strategically for so-called emergencies.
I’ve been living at The Wooden Barn for only one day, and I haven’t witnessed one of my roommate’s emergencies yet, but she assures me they’re coming. “They always come,” she’d said, shrugging, when she first tried to explain what it would be like to share a room with her. “You’re going to see some shit you wish you’d never seen before. But don’t worry, I’m talking figurative shit. I’m not seriously unhinged.”
“Seriously unhinged” doesn’t get admitted to The Wooden Barn. This place isn’t a hospital, and they make a big point of how they’re against giving out psychiatric medication. Instead, they insist that the school experience is meant to bring people together and help them heal.
I can’t imagine that this can be true. They don’t even let you have the Internet. They ban it completely, which just seems cruel. They also confiscate your cell phone. There’s one ancient pay phone in the girls’ dorm, and one in the boys’. There isn’t any accessible Wi-Fi, so you can use your laptops for writing papers, but you can’t research anything. You can listen to music, but you’re out of luck if you want to go online and download new songs. You’re cut off from everything, which makes no sense at all, because everyone at this school is already cut off in one way or another.
Although no one comes right out and says it, The Wooden Barn is sort of a halfway house between a hospital and a regular school. It’s like a big lily pad where you can linger before you have to make the frog-leap back to ordinary life.
DJ told me she’d previously been in a special hospital for eating disorders. The patients there were all girls, she went on, and they were constantly being weighed by nurses who wore those pediatric nurse blouses that had patterns of cutesy puppies or panda bears on them. Sometimes when their weight got too low, the girls were force-fed through tubes.
“That happened to me once,” DJ said. “One of the nurses held me down, and her boobs were smashed into my face, and when I looked up, all I could see was an ocean of tiny golden retrievers.”
By the time I arrive at The Wooden Barn, DJ has been here for two years. And this morning, on the very first day that classes begin, as she hovers above me with her hair hanging in my face like a curtain, I just want her to go away. But she won’t.
“Jam, you already missed breakfast,” she says, as if she’s my parent or something. “It’s time for class. What’ve you got first?”
“Haven’t you looked at your skedge?”
“My ‘skedge’? If you mean my schedule, no.”
I’d arrived the day before, having made the six-hour drive up with my parents and Leo. My mom was sort of crying the whole way but pretending it was allergies, and my dad was listening to NPR with a strange intensity. “Today,” said the woman on the radio, “we are going to devote our entire show to the voices suppressed by the Taliban.”
My dad turned up the volume and nodded his head thoughtfully, as if it were the most fascinating thing, while my mom closed her eyes and cried, not about the voices suppressed by the Taliban, but about me.
My brother, Leo, was just being himself, sitting beside me pressing buttons on the grimy little handheld in his lap. “Hey,” he said when he’d beaten a level of his game and caught my eye.
“It’ll suck without you in the house.”
“You’d better get used to it,” I said to him. “Our childhood together is pretty much over.”
“That’s mean,” he said.
“But it’s true. And then eventually,” I went on, “one of us will die. And the other one will have to go to the funeral. And give a speech.”
“Jam, stop,” Leo said.
I immediately felt sorry about what I’d said, and didn’t even know why I’d said it. I was in a bad mood all the time. Leo didn’t deserve to be treated this way. He was only twelve, and he looked even younger. Some kids in his grade looked like they were ready to have children; Leo looked like one of the children they might’ve had. Occasionally he got tripped in the hall, but nothing really bothered him because he’d found a way not to care. From the time he turned ten, he’d been obsessed with the alternative world of a video game called Dream Wanderers that has to do with magic cubes and apprentices and characters called driftlords.
I still have no idea what a driftlord is. At the time, I didn’t even understand what an alternative world was, but now of course I do. And so I get what my little brother has known for a while: Sometimes an alternative world is much better than the real one.
“I wasn’t trying to be mean,” I told Leo in the car. “I get like this,” I added.
“Mom and Dad told me that when you act this way I should just let it go, because—”
“Because why?” My voice had an edge.
“Because of what you’ve been through,” he said uneasily. He and I had barely talked about it. He was so young, and he couldn’t possibly know what I’d been through, what I’d felt.
The conversation had nowhere to go, so we each looked out our separate windows, and finally Leo closed his eyes and went to sleep with his mouth open. The car was enveloped in the smell of the cool-ranch-flavored chips he’d been eating. I felt sorry for him that he was like an only child now. That he no longer had a normal older sister. That instead he had one who’d become destroyed enough to have to go live at a special school in another state six hours away.
Drop-off at The Wooden Barn was highly tense. My mom kept trying to arrange my room, while DJ lounged on her bed, silently watching the whole scene, clearly amused by it.
“Be sure you give your study buddy a couple of big punches every day so the filling stays even,” my mom said to me as I put things in drawers.
From my trunk, I took out the jar of Tiptree Little Scarlet Strawberry Preserve, the jam that Reeve had given me the night we first kissed, and I held the cool glass cylinder in my hand for a moment. I knew I’d never open this jar. It was almost like an urn that had Reeve’s ashes in it. The seal would remain unbroken forever. The jar was sacred to me, and I deposited it in my top dresser drawer and covered it carefully with a mess of bras and underwear and an old Tweety Bird nightshirt.
“Just reach out and hit it, okay, Jam?” my mom continued. “Just hit it like it was a predator who’s jumped you in an alley.”
“Mom,” I said, while DJ kept watching, not even pretending she wasn’t. She annoyed me so much, and I couldn’t believe I was going to have to live with her.
“I mean, just give it a good slug all around the bottom and the sides,” my mom continued, demonstrating how I should attack the so-called study buddy, that big pillow with arms that she’d insisted we buy for my room at the Price Cruncher back in Crampton.
The woman at the checkout counter had smiled at us when we managed to hoist it onto the moving belt. And then she’d said in a singsong voice, “Is someone going to Fenster Academy?”
Fenster Academy is the snotty boarding school not too far from my house in New Jersey where the girls have horses and everyone wears a sky-blue uniform, and sings these corny songs with bad rhymes like, “Oh Fenster, dear Fenster, we will ne’er forget our semesters . . .” Mom and I both awkwardly shook our heads no.
The study buddy was enormous, orange, and corduroy. I hated it in the store, and I hated it again when it sat on my bed in The Wooden Barn with its arms out. I even hated the name “study buddy.” Everyone knew I was still in no condition to study.
Apparently, though, it was time to “knuckle down,” or “get with the program,” as people said. And since I couldn’t do that, then it was time for me to enroll at The Wooden Barn, where supposedly a combination of the Vermont air, maple syrup, no psychiatric medication, and no Internet will cure me. But I’m not curable.
The other thing that makes the name “study buddy” awful is that I have no “buddies” anymore. Before I met Reeve and wanted to be with him all the time, my closest friends in Crampton were two other low-key, nice girls with long, straight hair—girls like me. We worked hard at school but weren’t nerds, and had done a little weed but weren’t stoners. Mostly we were all considered cute-looking and sweet and sort of shy.
Actually, I don’t think anyone thought about us all that often. We were the kind of girls who braided one another’s hair when we were younger, and practiced synchronized dance moves, and slept over at one another’s houses every single weekend. On those sleepovers we talked very frankly about a lot of topics, including “relationships,” of course, though among us only Hannah Petroski had an actual, long-term boyfriend, Ryan Brown. The two of them were really serious, and had almost had sex.
“We are a millimeter away from actually doing it,” Hannah had revealed one weekend. And though I didn’t exactly know what that meant, I nodded and pretended I did. Hannah and Ryan had been in love since Mrs. Delahunt’s kindergarten class. They’d had their first kiss on a carpet remnant in the nap corner.
After I lost Reeve, my friends came around a lot at first, dropping solemnly by the house. I could hear them from my bedroom when they stood in the front hall and talked to my parents. “Hi, Mr. Gallahue,” one of them would say. “Is Jam doing any better? No? Not at all? Wow, I don’t really know what to say. Well, I baked her some snickerdoodles . . .”
But when they knocked on my bedroom door I never wanted to talk to them for very long. “I just wish you’d get over this already,” Hannah finally said one day, sitting on the edge of my bed. “You didn’t even know each other for very long. What was it, a month?”
“Forty-one days,” I corrected.
“Well, I know you’re having a hard time,” she told me. “I mean, Ryan is my life, so it’s not as if I can’t appreciate it in some way. But still . . . ,” she added, her voice trailing off.
“But still what, Hannah?”
“I don’t know,” she said. Then she added, miserably, “I have to go, Jam.”
If Reeve had been there I would’ve said to him, “Don’t you hate the way people say, ‘But still, dot-dot-dot’ and let their voices kind of drop away, like they’ve actually finished the sentence? ‘But still’ doesn’t mean anything, right? It just means you can’t explain what you feel.”
“I do hate that,” Reeve would’ve said. “People who say ‘But still’ have Satan in them.”
He and I just tended to see the world the same way. After I lost him, I stayed in my room, drowsing on my bed. Once I wore my Tweety Bird nightshirt for five days straight. My friends stopped coming. No more visits, no more snickerdoodles. My parents made me try to go back to school, but everyone there stared at me because they knew how much I’d loved Reeve. I just sat in class with my eyes shut, hardly listening to anything being said.
“Hello in there,” a teacher would say. “Jam, hello?”
Sometimes, in the middle of a school day, I’d be standing in a patch of red light under the exit sign by the gym, or sitting on a beanbag chair in a corner of the library. And suddenly I’d remember that this was a place where I’d been with Reeve, and I’d go into a total panic. The breath would fly out of my chest, and I’d run down the hall and out through the fire doors and keep going.
At first, some teacher or staff person would always run after me, but after a while they got tired of running. “I’m too old for this!” the school nurse once bellowed at me from across the playing fields.
“If Jamaica can’t bring herself to stay at school during the day,” the principal said to my parents, “then perhaps you ought to make other arrangements for her.”
So they tried homeschooling. They brought in a former history teacher who, we’d all heard, had been fired for coming to class wasted on vodka shots. He was a nice guy with a sad, creased face like one of those Shar-Pei dogs, and though he was never drunk when he came to tutor me, I just couldn’t pay attention. Again, I drifted off. “Oh, Jam,” he said. “I’m afraid this isn’t working.”
• • •
Now, after my mom and dad and my brother, Leo, have said their good-byes to me in my dorm room—all of them so upset, and me sort of empty and thick inside—and after I’ve sat through baked chicken, green beans, and quinoa in the dining hall, overwhelmed by all the new faces and voices around me, but staying separate and not talking to anyone, and after a night spent barely sleeping, I lie curled in bed on the first morning of classes at The Wooden Barn.
And DJ, already fully dressed and with her hair in my face, demands to see my “skedge.” I motion vaguely toward the desk, where some of my non-clothing belongings are piled in no particular order. DJ paws through them and finally pulls out a folded piece of paper. Her expression changes as she looks at it.
“What?” I ask.
DJ looks at me strangely. She’s half Asian, half Jewish, with straight, shining dark hair, and freckles tossed across her face. “You have Special Topics in English?” she says, her voice rising up in disbelief.
“I don’t know.” I haven’t checked my classes. I really don’t care.
“Yeah, you do,” she says. “It’s your first class of the day. Do you know how unusual it is that you got in?”
DJ sits down on the bed at my feet. “First of all, this is a legendary class. The person who teaches it, Mrs. Quenell, only teaches it when she wants to. Like, last year she decided it wasn’t going to be offered at all. She said there wasn’t the right ‘mix’ of students, whatever that means. And even when she does teach it, almost nobody gets accepted into the class. You go through this whole effort of applying for it, but basically they always give you another class instead.
“This summer I even wrote a special sucking-up note to her saying how important it was to me to be allowed to take the class this fall. I said that when I got to college I wanted to be an English major, and that ‘if I was lucky enough to be accepted into Special Topics, it would surely send me on my way.’ I actually used those ass-kissing words. But they didn’t work. I got put in regular English, just like almost everybody else. It’s a total joke.”
“Well,” I say, “you’re probably lucky that you didn’t get in.”
“That’s the same thing people always say,” DJ says, irritated. “And it just makes me want to be in it more. By the way, it’s one semester long. It ends right before Christmas break. And you only read one writer.”
“One writer the whole semester?”
“Yeah. It changes each time. Mrs. Quenell is really old,” DJ goes on. “She’s one of the only teachers at The Wooden Barn who’s called ‘Mrs.’ On the first day of class, every other teacher says ‘Call me Heather’ or ‘Call me Ishmael,’ in this we’re-your-best-friends-and-you-can-tell-us-anythingway. But not Mrs. Quenell. And here’s another weird thing: Some people get into her class who didn’t even apply. Like, apparently, you. There are usually only five or six people in it. It’s the smallest, most elite class in the entire school.”
“Feel free to take my place,” I say.
“I wish I could. During the semester, everyone in the class acts like it’s no big deal. But then when it’s over, they say things about how it changed their lives. I’m dying to know in what way it changed their lives. But it’s not like you can ask anyone about it now, because no one who was in that class is still at school. It’s mixed grades, but the last of them graduated or left. I swear, it’s like one of those secret societies.” DJ looks me over with an expression that’s partly impressed, and partly hostile, and says, “So. Tell me. What’s so special about you?”
I think about this for a second. “Nothing,” I say. Reeve was the most special thing that ever happened to me. Now I’m just an apathetic, long-haired girl who doesn’t care about anything except my own grief. I have no idea why I was chosen to be in Mrs. Quenell’s Special Topics in English. I don’t even want to be in an advanced class where you obviously have to work extra hard to do well. I’d rather be allowed to hang out in the back of a classroom all year and get some sleep while the teacher gets all worked up and about to have a stroke over whether or not Huckleberry Finn is racist.
Instead, I’m probably going to have to “participate.” But I don’t want to participate in anything. The world can go on without me and just leave me alone to close my eyes and rest during the school day. Apparently The Wooden Barn didn’t get that message.
But DJ, who doesn’t get the message that I want to be left alone either, makes me get out of bed and get dressed. “Up,” she says, making getting-up motions with her hands. Her nails, I notice, are painted grayish green.
“What are you, my mommy?” I ask.
“No, your roommate.”
“I didn’t know that getting me up was your job,” I say coldly.
“Well, now you know,” says DJ. Despite her appearance and the snaky way she behaved when my parents dropped me off, she seems very involved in being a roommate. She manages to get me out of bed, and even insists that I eat a little something before Special Topics in English begins. “You want your mind to be sharp,” she says.
“Believe me, you do. Here. Eat.” This, of course, is deeply ironic—the food-issues girl urging her non-food-issues roommate to eat—but DJ doesn’t seem to notice. She’s reached under her mattress and pulled out a flattened s’mores-flavored granola bar.
I take the bar and wolf it down, though it tastes like old compacted dirt shot through with little bits of gravel. I don’t ask her why I ought to listen to her when I don’t know her at all, except to see that she must be a genuinely screwed-up person to have landed at The Wooden Barn. But then again, I must be one too.
“It’s for the best,” my dad had said a few nights earlier, when I was packing the trunk that I used to take to Camp Swaying Spruce every summer.
Then my mom, who always blurts out the truth when she’s under stress, added, “We don’t know what else to do with you, babe!”
So now, having been banished to The Wooden Barn, and having eaten a flattened, tasteless granola bar, my roommate, DJ, hustles me outside. The leaf-bright campus is actually pretty, though I still don’t care. Fine, so instead of living in a pale blue suburban ranch house at 11 Gooseberry Lane in Crampton, New Jersey, my half-dead self now lives on the campus of an abnormal New England boarding school that’s made to look like a normal one. There are plenty of trees, winding paths, and kids with backpacks.
“See this building?” DJ says, pointing to a big red wooden structure. “It used to be a barn—that’s where the school got its name, duh—but now it’s where a lot of classes are held. It’s the nicest of all the buildings. Of course, Special Topics is held here.” She leads me inside and takes me down a long hall. The old, polished wooden floors creak and groan under our feet. People are wandering around, killing time before class.
“Yo, DJ, you in Perrino’s section A physics?” a boy calls to her.
“Yeah,” she says suspiciously. “Why?”
“I’m in it too.”
“What a staggering coincidence,” she says.
DJ seems popular here, which would never have been the case in Crampton. Then again, it was pretty surprising that I got to be popular there, having spent so many years as one of those interchangeable, long-haired nice girls. But when I started spending time with Reeve, some people in the group of kids that decided which other kids mattered began to pay more attention to me. Everyone noticed the way Reeve sat with me during art class once, and how I sketched him. We sat very close that day, and word got around that there was something between us.
Which explains why Dana Sapol, the girl who probably mattered most at Crampton, and who was never nice to me, had actually looked up from her locker and said, “My parents and Courtney the brat are going to our grandparents’ this Saturday, so it’s par-tay time. You should come. The hottie exchange student will be there.”
I pretended not to think it was a huge deal that she had said this. But of course it was. Dana had had it out for me since the day in second grade when she forgot to wear underpants to school. I only found this out because she hung upside-down on the jungle gym that day, though luckily I was the only one who saw. “Dana, you forgot your underpants,” I hissed, blocking her from everyone else’s view.
You’d think she would have been grateful. I saw it before anyone else could see. But instead it was like I suddenly knew something scandalous about her that I could hold over her forever. Not that I ever would have, of course, but it was what she thought. Years passed and Dana’s underpants incident might’ve become something funny that we could have joked around about, but we never did. She just treated me cruelly or ignored me—until now, when suddenly I was invited to her party.
I’d twirled my combination lock and made an expression of only the vaguest interest. As if I didn’t care that I was invited, or as if I didn’t care that Reeve would be there. As if maybe I had something else to do on Saturday night besides some sleepover at Hannah’s or Jenna’s, or a trip to the mall to look at skinny jeans, or a family game night with my parents and Leo. I hadn’t really minded those nights before—I’d even liked them—but all of a sudden I couldn’t believe I’d spent so much time that way.
I just wanted to be with Reeve now. He was all I thought about. He’d said that the Kesmans, his host family, were concerned about him making the “right” friends. This was sort of understandable. The previous year, the Kesmans had hosted a girl from Denmark who did nothing but wear clogs and smoke weed. So when Reeve came to live with them, they went through his luggage looking for illegal substances.
“Or clogs,” Reeve added.
But he wasn’t into substances, and neither was I. “If I want to get all paranoid and scarf down an entire Cadbury Dairy Milk bar and a bag of crisps, I don’t need something herbal to make me do that,” he once said, which I thought was pretty funny.
“‘Cadbury Dairy Milk bar,’” I said. “‘Crisps.’ And pronouncing the ‘h’ in ‘herbal.’ Those British things you say—I love them.”
“‘In hospital,’” said Reeve, continuing to try to amuse me. “‘Flat.’ ‘Bloody hell.’ ‘That’ll be twelve quid.’ ‘Duke and Duchess of Fill-in-the-Bloody-Blank.’”
Standing in the hallway outside my classroom at The Wooden Barn, I’m swimming in thoughts of Reeve—his voice, his face—but DJ puts an end to this. “Focus. Class is about to start. You’d better tell me all about it later,” she says, and then she pushes me inside.
“WELCOME, EVERYONE,” SAYS MRS. QUENELL WHEN all of us are seated around the table. “All of us” is only four people. The class is even smaller than DJ said it would be. To my surprise, there’s no loud, in-your-face bell here to signal that class has begun. I guess people at The Wooden Barn are so fragile that a ringing bell could send them over the edge. Instead, our teacher glances at the extremely small face of the gold watch on her long wrist, and frowns slightly, the way people do when they look at the time.
Mrs. Quenell is like someone’s elegant, graceful grandmother, with hair the color of faded snow, swept back off her face. She must be in her late seventies. She looks up and around at us and says, “I had hoped that everyone would be here promptly at the start of class, but I guess that’s not the case. We have a lot of work to do, so I’d like to begin, even with one student absent.”
I wonder who that student is. Maybe she’s new like me, and doesn’t have a roommate who will get her out of bed and push her into the classroom. She could still be fast asleep right now, wanting everyone to go away, just like I do.
“As you are all well aware, this class is called Special Topics in English,” Mrs. Quenell says. “And now I’d like to go around the room and have you all say your names and a few things about yourselves. Even if you already know one another, remember that I don’t know any of you. Except on paper.”
The three other kids sitting at the oval oak table in this small, bright room include a neatly-pressed type of boy with freshly cut black hair and a striped button-down shirt; a beautiful African American girl with a head of braids with bright little beads at the ends like optical fibers; and a boy whose face is obstructed by a gray hoodie. Not only is the hood up, but he’s got his head resting on his crossed arms, his face turned away from everyone.
Suddenly, as if he knows I’m looking, hoodie boy turns in my direction. The movement is sharp and surprising, like when one of the giant sea turtles at the zoo suddenly decides to turn its head. Unlike a sea turtle, hoodie boy is good-looking, but in a hostile way. You can tell he’d rather be anywhere but here, which is how I feel too, though I hide my feelings better than he does. Detachment is my style, not hostility.
Then the boy yanks down his hood, letting loose his long blond hair. I can imagine him surfing, snowboarding, doing something daring while his hair blows in the wind. So he’s one of those people, I think, the reckless kind I’ve never liked. Reeve never liked that kind either.
“The dudes have arrived,” Reeve said one day when a few of those boys hulked into the cafeteria together. “They’re here to get their recommended daily allowance of dude protein.”
“Eight million grams of raw shark flesh,” I said.
Now, as I find myself looking at the boy in the hoodie, he gives me a glance that seems to say, “Move along now.”
Flustered, I look elsewhere, gazing out the window and half expecting to see a lone student hurrying late to our class.
Mrs. Quenell motions to the African American girl, who sits to her left. She’s the kind of girl who, when she walks down the street in a city, people from modeling agencies probably come up to her and hand her their business cards, saying, “Call me anytime.” She sits up straight in her chair with the best posture I’ve ever seen on a creature that isn’t a sea horse.
“Why don’t we begin here,” says our teacher.
“Okay,” says the girl after an uncomfortable pause. “I’m Sierra Stokes.” She stops, as though we have all the information we need.
Mrs. Quenell says, “Can you say a little more?”
“I’m from Washington, DC. I’ve been at The Wooden Barn since last spring. Before that,” Sierra adds in a slightly stiff voice, “I was out of school for a while. That’s all, I guess.”
“Thank you,” says Mrs. Quenell, and then she nods to the serious-looking boy. He has one of those square, masculine heads that have probably been square and masculine since he first emerged from his mom’s birth canal.
“I’m Marc Sonnenfeld,” he says, and I think, debate team, possibly captain. “I’m from Newton, Massachusetts,” he continues, “and I live with my sister and my mom. I was president of the student council. Also, captain of the debate team.”
“But then everything got kind of horrible, and I don’t really know what I’m into anymore.” He pauses, then says, “I guess that’s all.”
“Thank you, Marc,” says Mrs. Quenell. She turns to the blond boy in the hoodie and says, “All right, why don’t you introduce yourself next?” His silence goes on so long that it seems rude, as if maybe he were pretending he didn’t hear her. Then finally he speaks in a voice so soft and flat that I can’t even hear it across the table.
Mrs. Quenell says, “One voice. That’s all we’re given.” No one has any idea what this means, but she seems content to let us remain confused, and wait.
“Um, what?” says Marc.
“We each have only one voice,” says Mrs. Quenell. “And the world is so loud. Sometimes I think that the quiet ones”—she nods toward the rude boy—“have figured out that the best way to get other people’s attention is not to shout, but to whisper. Which makes everyone listen a little harder.”
“That wasn’t what I was doing,” says the boy in a suddenly louder voice. “I was just talking the way I talk. I used to always get told to use my inside voice. So now I did. And, what, instead you want my outside voice?”
Mrs. Quenell smiles so slightly that I don’t even know if anyone else sees it. “No, just your real voice,” she says. “Whatever that is. I hope we’ll find out.”
Who is this teacher? I can’t tell whether she’s being playful or serious. I feel awkward sitting here, and the class is so small that there’s probably no way to hide my awkwardness. There’s no way to hide anything at all when there are so few of us sitting around a table. A whole semester of this will be excruciating. Looking around, I’m pretty sure everyone else feels the same way.
But our teacher acts as if she doesn’t notice that we’re uncomfortable. She’s still looking at hoodie boy, waiting for him to introduce himself properly. When he finally does, it seems to take all his effort. “I’m Griffin Foley,” he says.
Then he stops. That’s it?
“Welcome, Griffin,” Mrs. Quenell says, and she waits.
“I’m from a farm a mile and a half away,” he continues. “I always get bad grades in English. I’m just warning you.” Then he sinks back down.
“Thank you,” says Mrs. Quenell. “I’ll consider myself warned.”
Just then the door bangs open, the knob slamming so hard against the wall that I worry it’ll leave a crater. Startled, we all turn at once to see a girl in a wheelchair trying to push herself into the classroom. “Oh, fuck,” she says as her backpack catches the edge of the doorframe.
Everyone around the table, including Mrs. Quenell, jumps up to help, though right away we’re all clearly a little embarrassed at our own extreme show of helpfulness. Sierra gets there first, and she lifts the backpack off the wheelchair and out of the way, and the girl zips inside. She’s small, red-haired, delicate, but she’s in a real state, and the word that comes to mind now is blazing.
“I know there’s no excuse for me being late,” the girl says in a nearly hysterical voice. “I don’t want to play the cripple card—oh, excuse me, I mean the disabled card. And I don’t want you to tell me it’s perfectly all right that I’m late,” she goes on.
As I look over at our teacher, though, I can see that it’s not all right. The thing is, this girl doesn’t understand it yet. She’s probably heard that all the teachers at The Wooden Barn are really easygoing and gentle with their students, afraid that a single stern word might make them disintegrate. But Mrs. Quenell says, “I won’t tell you that. I would like for it not to happen again. We have a lot to accomplish. I don’t want to waste a second.”
The girl seems startled. I bet usually no one has wanted to upset her, just the way no one has wanted to upset me either.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I haven’t figured this out yet.”
“I understand. But you’ll have to, somehow,” says Mrs. Quenell, which seems a little harsh. “If you go through life like that, you’ll miss out on too much.”
And then I realize—and maybe all of us realize, because as it turns out this girl is new too, like me—that she wasn’t born disabled, and that her wheelchair must be a pretty recent addition. I suddenly really want to know what happened to her. I don’t see a cast on either of her legs, so it’s not a broken bone. But the legs don’t look shriveled up, either, like the Wicked Witch of the East’s right before they disappear under the house. They look like normal legs packed in blue jeans, except they’re clearly not functional.
“But it’s just so hard,” the girl says in a voice that makes her sound very young.
“I know that,” says Mrs. Quenell, more gently now. “Hard. You’ve used the perfect word. And I’m a big believer in finding the perfect words. I’ve been that way as long as I can remember.”
She closes her eyes, and I think that she is literally remembering something, dragging up a specific image in her mind from long ago. I wonder if maybe she’s too old to be teaching. Her personality seems a little unpredictable—shifting between impatient and sympathetic.
Mrs. Quenell opens her eyes and says to the girl, “You’ve already learned two things since you’ve been here. One: Lateness—your teacher doesn’t like it. And two: Perfect words—she likes them very much. And now maybe we can all learn something about you.”
The girl looks unhappy with this idea. “Like what?”
“We’ve been going around the table and the students have been saying their names and a little something about themselves. Now it’s your turn.”
“I’m Casey Cramer,” the girl says grudgingly. “Casey Clayton Cramer. All Cs,” she adds.
“What?” says Marc. “Your grades?”
Excerpted from "Belzhar"
Copyright © 2014 Meg Wolitzer.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Young Readers Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Entertainment Weekly’s Best YA Book of 2014
Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2014
TIME magazine Top YA of 2014
NPR’s Book Concierge 2014 Great Reads List
Newsday 2014 Best Books for Young Readers
BookPage Best Children’s books of 2014
Bustle.com Top 25 YA Novels of 2014
School Library Journal Best Books of the Year
"It’s been a long while since a book has pulled me in this way; I read it leaning forward, figuratively on the edge of my seat with my heart in my throat. I had no idea what was coming, but I was hungry to get there. So subtly plotted and painfully beautiful, I couldn’t put it down. Meg Wolitzer is a an amazing storyteller.” —Jacqueline Woodson, winner of the National Book Award for Brown Girl Dreaming
"Wolitzer has imagined a world for young readers that celebrates the sacred, transcendent power of reading and writing." —The New York Times Book Review
“Expect depth and razor sharp wit in this YA novel from the author of The Interestings.” —Entertainment Weekly
“A prep school tale with a supernatural-romance touch, from genius adult novelist Meg Wolitzer.” —Glamour
“Basically everything Meg Wolitzer writes is worth reading, usually over and over again, and her YA debut…is no exception.” —TeenVogue.com
“Demonstrates the power of words to heal.” —The Washington Post
“A riveting exploration of the human psyche…Wolitzer's teenage characters are invigorated, flawed, emotionally real and intensely interesting. Even as readers fold back the layers of the story and discover unexpected truths and tragedies, the plot maintains an integrity that has come to be hallmark of Wolitzer's novels.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“A smart and engrossing tale of trauma, trust, and triumph.” —School Library Journal, starred review
"A strong, original book." —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Wolitzer handles Jam’s increasingly complex psychological state with delicate, nonjudgmental nuance …teen readers, especially rabid Plath fans, will relish Wolitzer’s deeply respectful treatment of Jam’s realistic emotional struggle.” —Booklist
“Enlivened by humor, memorable characters and a page-turning mystery only revealed in its final pages, Belzhar explores the role of trauma in young lives.” —BookPage
"But Jam herself is a fantastic portrait of a girl somehow younger than her own age, unable to cope with the hardships of being a teenager, and the final twist of the novel reveals an unexpected aspect to her character that makes her all the more heartbreaking." —The Daily Beast
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Meg Wolitzer
Novelist Meg Wolitzer was already in possession of an enviable string of literary successes from the sly feminist fable of The Wife to the Lysistrata update of The Uncoupling. After 2013's The Interestings a bestseller and critical hit that chronicled the adult lives of a set of teenage arts camp friends, it's perhaps only natural that her encore would be a novel aimed at, not just about, younger readers. Belzhar, released last week, takes its title from Sylvia Plath's only novel, The Bell Jar, published in 1963. Caveat lector: While Wolitzer pays homage to that literary predecessor, this is no Dead Poets Society. Belzhar is entirely its own story, using Plath's difficult and charged account of a young woman's mental illness to illuminate the impact of trauma on a group of high school students.
Wolitzer has long been fascinated by the ways in which women of all ages negotiate their life choices. That first, pre-college- graduation novel, Sleepwalking, was about "death- girls," female college students obsessed with dead poets (there's Plath, again). 2003's The Wife returned to the Smith College campus (where Wolitzer spent two years before transferring to Brown University), this time during the 1950s and focusing on how a star male professor's career affects his spouse. The Uncoupling and The Ten-Year Nap also detail how women's choices to work or not, to raise a family have consequences that can reach beyond their own journeys and into the lives of others.
I spoke to Wolitzer over a leisurely lunch at Manhattan's Candle Cafe leisurely because it took place early in August, weeks before she had to think about the publication of Belzhar. The following interview is an edited transcript of our discussion. Bethanne Patrick
The Barnes & Noble Review: You've now written two books that involve Sylvia Plath.
Meg Wolitzer: I was thinking about it recently, about how struck by Plath I was when I attended Smith. I read her journals, her diaries, everything that I could get my hands on, and both then and now, the living presence of past writers fascinates me. There's a sort of beautiful element to really being built on by so many other artists the way Plath has been.
BNR: That's true, and each of those artists reaches a different audience.
MW: Yes, there are things about Sylvia Plath that are adolescent like The Bell Jar and things about her that are absolutely adult, like "Ariel." The thing that fascinated and fascinates me still is that she is a writer who has meant things to me in both of those stages of my own life.
BNR: What about The Bell Jar shouts "adolescent"?
MW: Let me start by saying that I think the average YA reader is wide open to a book, if she loves it. And to love it, she has to feel it's speaking to her own experience. Things in a book can come from out in the world, like references to a novel written by a dead poet in the 1950s, but if they don't convey anything to a more universal feeling for that reader, the YA novel will fail. I read The Bell Jar as a high school freshman, riding the LIRR, and I will never forget the kind of inevitability it had. You can't read it the way you would any other book. I think of it as a catalyst into a lot of very different places. For me, The Bell Jar was born of adolescence, a time that really is, for each of us, our own "bell jar" experience.
BNR: Did writing YA prove challenging for you in any way?
MW: Yes, in two ways, actually. First, I tried to write a not-jaded book, because I've lived a lot longer than my characters, and that led to the second way, which is the tension between the adult novelist and the adolescent narrator. I did not want to impose my adult consciousness on the sense of choices that go into Jam's [Jamaica Gallahue] experience at The Wooden Barn.
BNR: What drew you toward the genre?
MW: Having kids! Seriously my son had read Looking for Alaska by John Green and passed it on to me. I read it, loved it, and thought, Wow, my son is thinking about intense things! These books that they call "YA" aren't simple. Alaska just felt direct and powerful, and those are words that apply to the best "adult" novels. It was an intensely interesting muscle to flex, and it taught me that people put their wit and their gracefulness into all kinds of writing if they're allowed.
BNR: Was the actual writing process different for you, this time?
MW: A little bit, but mostly because I was writing in the first person the only other book of mine that's first person is The Wife, and Jam's voice needed to be quite unlike Joan's Jam's voice is sort of breathless. What I believe about first-person narration is that it's necessary when it's a very voice-based book, as this one is.
BNR: But that doesn't make it easier.
MW: Nothing is easy sometimes things are fast, but they're not easy. I think revising is the great, most important thing in writing. If people aren't revising, it makes it more difficult for the reader to see changes over time, as there are in Belzhar. I don't like tricky books; tricky is not positive, for me. If a character does not come out of a deep emotional well, she can seem superficial. Things come out of character, needs and limitations. I wanted my story to develop around those things.
BNR: What about an adolescent narrator is essential, here?
MW: One of the things that's fantastic about an adolescent is that person is essentially learning on the job. She doesn't have enough world experience yet to make sense of her unvarnished pain. In Jam's case, that pain is specifically about love, and how she was in relation to another person. How is it that we get to the point where we don't see what's really happening with someone else. Also, Jam's age and station made this a more plot-driven book than I usually write, because it's all about her need to tell what happened, like pulling a cork out of a bottle.
BNR: Without giving anything away, may I say that there is a bit of magic realism in this book?
MW: [Laughs] I'm married to a science writer; there are so many things that are so weird in the universe! That said, I used the device I used because it was true psychologically; I tend to be very psychoanalytically minded, anyway, but in this story, I wanted to explore the way letting one's self be known creates a kind of magic individually, and in community. We all have this desire to be known, and being known, having a voice, is a durable thing.
BNR: Each student in the class has a distinct tale.
MW: That was a surprise, as I wrote, that each one of them really had something completely different about them. The thing about character traits, as we discussed earlier, is that they are applied when they are applied your choices as a writer have a long half-life.
BNR: Did you relate to any character more than the others Jam, for example?
MW: I became Mrs. Q., their English teacher, the shepherd of these kids who were screwed up but not fatally. It's kind of a dream boarding school where they are, a school without really dangerous delinquents, but also without a lot of social pressures. These kids in this English class together you know how something happened to you and it felt so big, but really wasn't? That's what this book is about.
BNR: Let's talk more about becoming Mrs. Q.
MW: She has a lot of tenderness and respect for her charges, a word I use because she's selected these students to be in her Special Topics in English class. I've had relationships like that, and I think anyone who has relationships like that in their life is lucky. It's about being with somebody who doesn't want anything from you.
BNR: That sounds a bit like some of the relationships in The Interestings.
MW: Yes, because it's about the moment when you find "your people." These kids, in Belzhar, recognize something in each other. They don't know, although Mrs. Q. does, that it's unprocessed experience. She's someone who creates a safe place for them, then stays out of the way. I kept her off the page quite a bit, which wasn't easy since I did connect with her. But I knew that if she orchestrated things even a tiny bit more that it would be a totally different book.
BNR: Why have your characters kept their experiences "unprocessed," if you will?
MW: It's self-delusion: If you don't look at something honestly, you don't have to face the pain of what it really is. You can keep looking at the surface without effecting any desire for change. It was very moving to me to realize that Mrs. Q. was going to ask this group to read The Bell Jar; I got a chill that day, knowing not only that I would be connecting my book to Plath's in this way, but also that I was going to be successful in drawing a character who could offer a solution through literature without providing cut-and-dried answers from it.
BNR: Because Mrs. Q. was young once, too, wasn't she?
MW: Yes! There's this bookish girl . . . even if she has an AARP card, she's a recognizable type! We can't assume that she's the writer, even if the writer is a recognizably bookish type, but it's often the case. When she exists in a book, this girl, for me it's like Meryl Streep: She may put on any number of different accents, but she's still Meryl Streep. She's a point of safety. You know there's someone smart there who sees the world in a way that you find interesting and you know that she's backed up her own experience with reading.
BNR: One of the things that Mrs. Q. seems to understand innately is the power of writing as a tool for healing, something that has recently been explored in the news as scientists learn that people who write about their pain often come to terms with it more easily than those who don't. Did that scientist husband of yours give you an insider's tip?
MW: No, but this doesn't surprise me. Re- experiencing something is voicing, by which I mean it helps to give you a voice, it helps you to be known fully, as I mentioned. I don't think you can do this without some sort of narrative loop.
BNR: For Jam and her friends in Belzhar, this comes about through a set of notebooks. Were you a great journal keeper in your own adolescence?
MW: Hardly! I liked to write so young, and refined that muscle so well, that if I was going to spend my time writing it was going to be stories, not journals. I knew I wanted to write books, and books need to feel propulsive. I was a bookish girl surprise! and any diary or journal I might have kept would have said "Nothing happened" an awful lot. I did all of my own re-experiencing on the page, as fiction. It might not be the right way for someone else, but it's worked for me.
October 6, 2014