In the Unlikely Event: A Novel
- By Judy Blume
- Alfred A. Knopf
- 416 pp.
- Reviewed by Erin Elliott
- August 6, 2015
The author's famed sensitivity shines in this fictionalized look at real-life events.
You just can’t roast Judy Blume. If you were ever a teenager, you think of her as something like a wise aunt. You don’t see her often, but you know you can trust her with your secrets. Criticizing her writing would be like complaining about your grandmother’s cooking. Luckily for me, I thoroughly enjoyed Blume’s latest novel, In the Unlikely Event.
Blume’s talent as a writer is the powerful emotional bond she forges with readers, many of whom are kids just beginning the climb to adulthood. They’re feeling embarrassed and awkward, intimidated and oversensitive. Somehow, delicately, Blume reaches in to offer reassurance. Her clear worldview teaches us that growing up is complex but achievable. We respond to her because we sense her affection for and sympathy with teenagers and the challenges they face.
In the Unlikely Event is suffused with Blume’s regard for young people. Set in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in the 1950s, the story is told from the perspective of teenage Miri. We meet a wide range of people who make up Miri’s world: her mother, Rusty; her grandmother, Irene; her best friend, Natalie; her uncle, Henry; an ambitious stewardess; an aspiring dancer; a housekeeper whose son is a pilot; the lonely Mrs. Stein; and others. We get a good sense of the town’s variety and interconnectedness, though the shifts in perspective can be disorienting.
Miri is facing some of the usual teen burdens and some spectacularly unusual ones, too. The fictional story of her life includes some real-life events. In the winter of 1951-52, three jets crashed into Elizabeth in the space of just a few months. The town lay directly in the flight path of Newark Airport. After the third crash, the airport was shut down. (On that same day, a Congressional hearing had been scheduled to take place in which airport officials planned to defend the safety record of the airport.)
In the wake of the first disaster, no one quite knows how to behave. In a few deft scenes, Blume shows the teenagers coming to the distressing realization that the adults don’t know what to do, either, and lets them grapple with the idea that nobody has a plan.
“Some parents suggested it might be seen as inappropriate to hold a Christmas pageant this year. Others asked what could be more appropriate.” At the remnants of Rusty’s birthday party on the evening of the first crash, Blume reports that “then they all laughed, as if it were a real party, as if nothing bad had happened or would ever happen.”
Later, Miri wonders if it’s “wrong to go to a holiday dance just a week after something horrible had happened in their town.” She doesn’t get an answer; no one really knows. Does Miri have to attend the funeral of the pilot, even though she’ll feel awkward? (Her grandmother answers that one with an emphatic yes.)
A little adolescent humor peeks in, too, such as when Miri expects “school to be canceled on Monday morning” because of the crash. Her eagerness to miss class lives side by side with her grief and confusion. Blume knows that contradictory emotions are part of life.
Blume’s prose sometimes achieves an honest simplicity. After Miri breaks up with her first boyfriend, her uncle Henry “wished he could make Miri’s sadness go away.” At other times, though, I wanted to move past the limitations of a teenager’s point of view into the complicated snarl in an adult’s head.
For example, we don’t learn what Rusty is feeling as she launches an affair with Natalie’s father and moves the family to Las Vegas. Instead, we see the events from Miri’s narrow perspective, in which the actions of adults are almost completely nonsensical. We don’t have access to the powerful forces that make a grown woman commit adultery and uproot her children. We only know that the forces are there because of their effect on Miri, who can only follow helplessly in the wake of her mother’s invisible passions.
The question underneath the surface of Blume’s novel is this: Is it okay to be happy after so many lives have been destroyed? Miri gets a gentle answer when carrying one of her grandmother’s famous coffeecakes to Mrs. Stein. When Mrs. Stein asks if she wants a piece, Miri is surprised to find that, yes, she does. Blume makes it clear that there is still some small comfort to be found in sharing food with a friend.
Blume offers other lessons in the same delicate way. Life will never feel under control. Sometimes circumstances make a friendship impossible, no matter how much we want it to be otherwise. It’s alright to keep loving someone you’re no longer with; there’s room for everyone in a heart.
And in Blume’s heart, there’s room for all of us. That’s what keeps us coming back to her books whenever we need a dose of understanding and encouragement. Each one contains a little jolt of courage for facing the life that lies ahead of us.
Erin Elliott is a lifelong reader and is studying writing at Johns Hopkins University. In between good books, she works as an engineer.