i had a very medium response to this book. i’m conflicted about a number of its different elements, annoyed/perplexed by others, but also pretty impressed by the big reveal’s ability to genuinely surprise me. however, that initial “pleasantly surprised” feeling morphed into additionally conflicted feelings once i processed the turn, so it’s all a jumble of contradictory and confusing feelings.
which means i am in the same emotional state as all the characters in this book, so let’s call it a 3.5 for that.
this book has several components that are real karen-grabbers: smart troubled kids at boarding school, secret historyish situation, magical elements creeping into the everyday – this is ordinarily the way to my heart. and since, after reading How To Be a Heroine, i’d decided to give The Bell Jar another chance to win me over, it seemed timely to read this. (since the title of this book is meant to be pronounced like “bell jar,” it led to a couple of confusing conversations: “oh, you’re reading The Bell Jar?” “no, i’m reading “bellzzjjjhhar” “that’s what i said!” oh, the hilarity of miscommunication.)(here’s another fun conversation i had about this book, this one with greg. upon looking closely at the cover:
“so, this is about sad kids?”
DING DING DING!! greg wins the “summarize a book by its cover game!)
and i liked it a lot at the beginning. jam (short for “jamaica”) is a sixteen-year-old girl whose boyfriend, the british exchange student reeve maxfield (sooo not in love with the names of characters in this book), died forty-one days after they met, where roughly only half of those days constituted the span of their “relationship.” a year has passed, and jam is in no way over her grief. she fetishizes this tiny jar of jam (get it??) he gave her, she mopes around the house, staying in bed for days, wearing the same clothes, avoiding her friends, skipping school, and making gloomy pronouncements, like this one in a conversation with her twelve-year-old brother.
“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.”
the reason she’s moving out of the house is that she is being sent to vermont to attend “the wooden barn,” a therapeutic boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” students where they can recover from “the lingering effects of trauma.” jam is one of five students chosen to be in a class called “special topics in english;” an extremely selective course taught periodically by the formidable mrs. quenell, around which (and whom) mysterious rumors have always swirled. former students have claimed the class was “life-changing,” but have always been very secretive about why or how, or what the class even studied.
and jam’s about to find out.
but first, she’s going to moon on and on about her dead boyfriend and her pain. actually, although i snark, i didn’t mind this part. i thought it was a very authentic description of a teenager losing their first love, as brief as it was. time is different for teenagers, and the length of a relationship is in no way commensurate to the emotions it inspires.
and her attraction to reeve made sense; a shy and quiet “good girl” being seduced by no more than an accent, a slouch, and some skinny black jeans. i loved that she described his voice as having a “scrape” to it. i loved this paragraph:
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.
i thought that was a great detail, because jam is at that age where she is transitioning from a child’s whole-world love for her parents to feeling sorry for them, and protective of them.
but back to reeve. always back to reeve. she spends her time remembering each and every conversation they ever had, greedily sucking the marrow from each precious memory. but she never talks about the day he died. or how it happened. in a school full of emotionally-fraught teenagers (i mean, more than your run-of-the-mill emotionally-fraught teenagers), everyone is very respectful of each others’ pasts and secrets, and some are more open than others about disclosing how they ended up at the wooden barn.
jam is friendly with her roommate dj, but once she begins attending her special topics in english class, and its mysterious life-changing experiences begin to manifest, she bonds in a much more cultish way with the other students in the class: marc, casey, griffin, and sierra. as the year goes on, extraordinary things begin to happen to them, things that can only be discussed with each other. on the first day of class, mrs. quenell enigmatically requests that they “look out for one another,” and that’s exactly what they do – sharing their past and current experiences and being there for each other in that always (to me) effective breakfast club scenario.
some of the difficulties i had were with the disparity of the characters’ trauma. now, i know grief operates on a sliding scale, and everyone has different emotional responses to their experiences, but pitting casey’s history against marc’s – it’s not even in the same ballpark. it’s not even the same sport. and when jam’s REVEAL is REVEALED – at first, it’s kind of awesome, i gotta say – just because of the shock of it all. and there’s that wonderful experience of readjusting your reader-thinking and doing that whole, “okay, so where does that leave us?” reevaluation, but once i was steadied, i gotta admit, i was much less sympathetic to jam. and that might make me a monster, but rereading the earlier parts of the book, i find that my bafflement perfectly aligns with the bafflement of jam’s former friends, so i think i’m okay.
most of my other niggles were minor, and involve too many plot-specifics to be useful here.
one more positive note: View Spoiler » i loved the detail that nothing in belzhar could occur that hadn’t happened in the real world, and i absolutely loved the gradual distancing she experienced with reeve; how she was moving on in life while he was staying exactly as he had been during their time together, and how his sameness began to bore her despite her equally powerful need to cling to her memory of happiness. or imagined happiness, as it were. i thought that was a very real depiction both of growing up and outgrowing the things you used to cherish about a person, but also of the healing process itself – how, as new experiences accumulate, the pain recedes just a little further, and the memories become bittersweet instead of just bitter. of course, once the inverted commas are slapped around “memories,” it gets messier, and the belzhar experience for jam is just sustaining her delusions and it gets much murkier and more problematic for me. « Hide Spoiler
and one more utterly useless observation – i loved how much dj reminded me of my beloved claudia of baby-sitter’s club fame. View Spoiler »i mean, except for the eating disorder. although… « Hide Spoiler she’s japanese (okay, half), she hides snacks all over, she dresses cool…
how i LONGED for those overalls!
and since she was one of my very first book-crushes, View Spoiler »it’s kind of great that dj discovers she likes girls. « Hide Spoiler claudia – i still pine for you!!! and your snacks!! which is not a euphemism – i just get the hungries sometimes.
i completely understand why other people had problems with this book. i have problems with it myself. but since it gives such a genuinely aching (and occasionally wincing) portrayal of all-consuming, obsessive young love, and since it totally “gotcha’d” me with that twist, i can overlook its flaws. ‘cuz we all have flaws. even claudia kishi couldn’t spell for shit.