When I heard that Judy Blume’s newest book featured a whole town full of characters, and readers needed to take notes to keep track of them, I wasn’t excited. As a child I loved Blume’s writing because she was so good at getting inside the minds of her characters. She knew them intimately and knew how to get us, the reader, to adore them. That was the whole point of reading a new Blume book for me – I wanted to fall in love with some new, adult characters, just like I had with Fudgie, Margaret and Forever’s Katherine. How was I supposed to do that with a whole town full of characters? I know Judy Blume’s good, but is she that good?
The short answer is yes, she really is that good. In the Unlikely Event tells the story of the residents of Elizabeth, New Jersey (Blume’s home town) in the winter of 1952. It’s a fictional account of three real plane crashes that occurred there within the space of three months and the devastation they wrought on the town and its inhabitants. Though it tells the story from the perspectives of at least 20 characters, Blume focusses on a plucky fourteen year old girl called Miri Ammerman and her small, three generational Jewish family. They are the centre of the novel’s universe and all the other characters orbit around them in some way – there are many instances of six degrees of separation here.
Like all Blume’s characters, they are very real. There are no one dimensional stereotypes or characters just playing a role to move the story along. She treats each one with kindness and a gentle touch. They’re not perfect, they have their faults, but they are relatable and ultimately likeable. After reading modern novels like Gone Girl, The Slap and Girl on the Train, it was refreshing to spend time with characters who weren’t psychopaths, deeply troubled or just plain unpleasant. In fact, the whole novel was like a trip to a simpler time. It was like visiting the set of Mad Men – without the alcohol abuse, sexism and rampant debauchery. Actually, when you look at it that way, why was it like visiting Mad Men?
I think it was the attention to detail. Blume created imaginary sets that were pure 1950’s – from the “thick, tweedy, wall to wall carpet of Natalie’s den” (and the fact that Natalie even had a den), to the “complete set of Encyclopaedia Britannica” taking up three shelves of a bookcase, we knew we had stepped back in time. It wasn’t just the physical environment either. The children’s manners, the familial respect and social mores all pointed to a world with different values. As the novel went on, it became clear that this was a world that was in a state of flux. The crashes of the planes heralded change.
In may ways this novel was a tribute to the passing of time and the stages of life. Blume has said that this will be her last novel. It is interesting that she has gone back to her childhood for this, back to the time of her own adolescence. These were important, shocking events that must have impacted her greatly. For her, and the characters and real people of this time in Elizabeth, it must have signalled a loss of innocence. The world before the crash was simple and the people naive. Even after the first crash, people were still optimistic and full of bravado. As the planes continued to fall from the skies, this optimism was muddied, replaced with hysteria and cynicism.
The crashes bookmark a time in history of great social change throughout the western world. As each crash devastates the town and its inhabitants, Miri suffers similar “crashes” in her personal life and in the lives of those she loves. Her innocence is slowly lost. This is mirrored in society as a whole and while there are devastating aspects of this loss, it has its positives.
Through the period of the book, the characters become less repressed by strict social mores and move forward to follow their hearts and become more of themselves. Christina breaks with her strict Greek heritage to marry against her parents wishes while Miri’s family struggles to accept her non Jewish boyfriend.
Blume continually nods to her loyal readers with her tender descriptions and gentle humour. From Miri and her friends practising putting a condom on a cucumber to the image of Miri’s first dance to “Unforgettable” with Mason McKittrick, it’s Blume at her best – sentimental, yet real. For me, this was a beautiful read. I found it entertaining and soothing at the same time. It was like hanging out with an old friend I hadn’t seen in a while and who had lots to tell me. The only bad thing about reading In the Unlikely Event was the knowledge that there may not be another new Judy Blume book to read. What ever will we do without Judy Blume?
Did anybody else read it? What did you think?