In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume, Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 402 pages
In her new novel for adult readers, Judy Blume has woven together all the elements that made her previous novels — most of them written for children — so engrossing. Adolescent angst, the chaos of families, loss, and the continuation of life: they’re all there. In the Unlikely Event takes place mostly in the 1950s, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Blume’s crucial sense of time and place, integral to books like Tiger Eyes and Starring Sally J. Freedman as
Herself, is the necessary anchor in an evocative plot about airplane crashes and trauma that features a veritable flight manifest’s worth of characters. Blume sketches the population of a town through the people who, sometimes tangentially, touch the life of fifteen-year-old Miri Ammerman, allowing the narrative point of view to flit from person to person, ever widening the scope of the story, which is loosely based on a real series of plane crashes that occurred near Newark Airport in 1951 and 1952, when Blume was growing up.
Miri lives with her mother, Rusty, her grandmother, Irene, and her uncle, Henry, a reporter for the Elizabeth Daily Post. Her first best friend is Natalie, and her second best friend is Suzanne; early in the book, she attends her first boy-girl party. When the airplanes begin to fall out of the sky, everyone reacts differently. Some of Miri’s friends think it’s the responsibility of aliens or a Communist plot, but Miri doesn’t know what to think, and her mother and grandmother would prefer she didn’t dwell on the horror. But Miri has learned you can’t always trust adults to tell you the truth or to know what the truth is, especially when everything else in her life is changing so quickly. She has just met a boy, Mason, and she is falling in love. As terror in Elizabeth mounts, Blume manages to make Miri’s concerns important, with the clear understanding that not everything she and the other younger characters believe to be dire really is. There is also a sense of adult business — work, marriage, divorce — although readers looking for steamy scenes akin to those in Wifey, one of Blume’s previous forays into fiction for adults, will be disappointed.
Blume is seventy-seven years old. Perhaps she has several more books to write, but if she doesn’t, In the Unlikely Event is a fine gift from a living legend — a long novel so easy to lose yourself in that it will remind fans why they loved her in the first place. The worlds she creates are not a fantasy escape but a vivid rendering and explanation of our own reality.