Review: In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

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In the Unlikely Event
Judy Blume

Knopf
Released June 2, 2015
397 pages
Adult / Contemporary-ish Fiction / Drama

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In her highly anticipated new novel, Judy Blume, the New York Times # 1 best-selling author of Summer Sisters and of young adult classics such as Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, creates a richly textured and moving story of three generations of families, friends and strangers, whose lives are profoundly changed by unexpected events.
In 1987, Miri Ammerman returns to her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey, to attend a commemoration of the worst year of her life. Thirty-five years earlier, when Miri was fifteen, and in love for the first time, a succession of airplanes fell from the sky, leaving a community reeling. Against this backdrop of actual events that Blume experienced in the early 1950s, when airline travel was new and exciting and everyone dreamed of going somewhere, she paints a vivid portrait of a particular time and place—Nat King Cole singing “Unforgettable,” Elizabeth Taylor haircuts, young (and not-so-young) love, explosive friendships, A-bomb hysteria, rumors of Communist threat. And a young journalist who makes his name reporting tragedy. Through it all, one generation reminds another that life goes on.
In the Unlikely Event is vintage Judy Blume, with all the hallmarks of Judy Blume’s unparalleled storytelling, and full of memorable characters who cope with loss, remember the good times and, finally, wonder at the joy that keeps them going.

I am probably towards the end of a generation of girls who read Judy Blume religiously. My childhood was punctuated with the Superfudge books while Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Blubber and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t were staples of my adolescence. I read Summer Sisters on a vacation with my grandmother during high school. There really isn’t much of my childhood I can remember where one of Blume’s books wasn’t on my shelf. So when I heard she had a new book out for adults, I pushed aside my stacks of science fiction and fantasy novels for an old friend who just might be able to convince me to read contemporary again.

In the Unlikely Event isn’t contemporary though. It takes place mostly in the 1950s in Elizabeth, NJ, a real town that faced the tragedy of three airplanes crashing into it within three months. While the events are real, the characters are fictional, ranging from teenage girls trying to figure out who they are to young adults trying to break away from parental expectations to parents worried about the safety of their families to grandparents trying to figure out how to start again. There are a lot of characters in this book to keep track of, many of them introduced in the first 50 pages with their own points of view narration.

Miri is the main character, and most of the other characters that get featured the most are tied to her. She’s a fifteen year old girl, discovering what it’s like to fall in love for the first time. Her single mother is trying to find the balance between letting go and holding on to her daughter. Miri’s uncle – a local journalist – is finding great success as he covers the tragedies in his home town. Miri’s best friend, on the other hand, is falling to pieces, hearing voices and possibly losing her mind. Other characters who get points of view including Miri’s first boyfriend, his brother, his brother’s girlfriend, a handful of victims of the plane crashes, and many others. Yet somehow they’re all tied together in a world that is already starting to get a little bit smaller.

This is a slice of life story with a dramatic and unexpected backdrop. At any moment, another plane could fall out of the sky, so as the reader, I was holding my breath alongside the characters until that third place crashed. Only then could I relax and watch the fallout of these disasters without fearing that any of my favorites were going to be victim of the next tragedy. That’s not to say other things don’t happen once the three planes crash, but at least I didn’t have that foreboding feeling hovering over me. It’s a very interested and effective manner of story structure that I enjoyed very much.

The story telling is very atmospheric with bits of window dressing and dialogue transporting the reader to the 1950s right alongside Miri. This is a talent that Judy Blume has always had, which I think makes me enjoy her “contemporary” works so much. She’s able to transport me to other times in the same way that a good science fiction writer can transport me to another world. Her characters are full of life and even though this book often broke my heart, it was a compelling and engaging read that I had difficulty putting down.

A conclusion at the end jumps 35 years into the future, giving a satisfying look at where all these characters end up. I loved seeing this flash forward in time, knowing which characters had satisfying lives while others may have taken more difficult paths. While the book may use the plane crashes as a story telling device, this book is very much about growing up and the lasting effects of first loves and the events that define us a people. Perhaps the nostalgia that I had while reading this book put it all in a more favorable light than had I read it without my reading history, but I really did enjoy In the Unlikely Event though my heart ached when I finished.