There are few writers whose work I read avidly as a teen that I can still enjoy something new from, so the pleasure of being recommended In the Unlikely Event, Judy Blume’s latest book, undoubtedly came from the novelty of reacquainting myself with a world I inhabited with such enthusiasm back then. From the moment In the Unlikely Event flashed back to early 1950s New Jersey it felt familiar to me from other Blume favourites such as Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret or Then Again, Maybe I Won’t. I could almost taste the famous burgers at the Three Brothers Luncheonette.
However, In the Unlikely Event is Judy Blume’s first adult novel for 17 years. So while it does begin in familiar Blume settings, introducing us to Miri – only daughter of a legal secretary single mother – and her close circle of school friends as they share sleepovers and dances, babysitting duties and gossip, things move into darker territory as the town is rocked by a string of fatal accidents. I don’t like to know too much about a book before I begin reading, so it came as an additional shock to learn that these were real events, three plane crashes in as many months which struck the New Jersey city of Elizabeth, experienced by Blume herself as a teenager.
As with many of Judy Blume’s heroines, Miri has a tough road to walk: her path from cosy sleepovers with the girls to sassy sexpot in her mother’s borrowed heels, navigating the usual turmoil of love and friendship with the added difficulties of her absent father, first love and standing up to The Man, even as the planes fall out of the sky around her. Her best friend Natalie seemingly lacks for nothing, with picture-perfect family, an epic basement party room and closet full of cashmere sweaters, but what Miri lacks in fine knitwear is compensated for by the devotion of her tight-knit home-life, grandma Irene and journalist uncle Henry providing her with balance and ballast.
Judy Blume’s teen fiction never shied away from toughness among the bra-stuffing and first dances. I remember the murder of Davey’s father in Tiger Eyes and its after-effects rocking my safer world on first reading. Likewise with In the Unlikely Event, no facet of emotion is left unexplored, we face it all with her characters, betrayal, shame, grief and trauma. One of the main differences with this book is that, as you would expect, the adults play a greater part. The teenagers have substantial roles but we also see how the ‘grown ups’ are left stunned and broken by the accidents, causing changes of behaviour for even the sensible, steady types.
There is a large cast of characters, which allows for many strands of story lines to be picked up, handled in detail or glimpsed in the background. Of course, it goes without saying that Blume handles this extremely effectively. (Although by the time of the third crash, it becomes tempting to view any newly-introduced character as soon-to-be doomed.) It is also notable how many of them are strong, amazing women doing their thing – keeping communities and families together, taking care of business and looking out for the people around them – having come through Depression, World War and now disasters. In the Unlikely Event contains some of the most realistic depictions of women and their concerns, deepest wants and reflections I have read for a while.
In the many lives lost and futures abbreviated, it was the story of Steve, Natalie’s brother, which really stayed with me. He is left completely bereft by the death of Kathy, but because very few people knew about them – they were in the very early stages of what might have become a relationship – he does not get to mourn properly. No one really acknowledges his suffering against the wider tragedies and he has no one to talk to about it, perhaps due to 1950s attitudes of manliness or how we expect teenage boys to handle their emotions. The ending of his story comes with a very brief few lines at a later memorial event, but is no less devastating.
Sometimes she wished she were a little kid again. Everything was so simple then. Now she never knew when she was going to find out something terrible, something she didn’t want to know.
These lines are from Miri, but they could be from a number of Judy Blume’s stories and I think capture the essence of her writing, as well as demonstrating why she holds such a place close to the heart of so many readers across the generations. That bewildering feeling of being no longer a child, but having to grapple with adult emotions and situations without the necessary experience or maturity. And Blume shows us that while to the young person it can be material comforts that seem so essential, while what really counts is the guidance offered and nurturing atmosphere created by the adults for the not yet grown. When the story moves back to the late 80s, it is interesting to pick up on Miri’s struggles with her own teenage daughter and see how the wheel turns.
An accomplished retelling of a community’s darkest hour, capturing the times perfectly – with aliens, Communists and zombies all being blamed at one point or another for the accidents – In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume is an essential addition to any reading list, to be followed no doubt by a long overdue rereading of forgotten teenage favourites.