Book Talk: IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT by Judy Blume

Knopf (June 2, 2015), Hardcover (ISBN 1101875046 / 9781101875049)
Fiction, 416 pages

A version of this discussion was previously published as a “From My Shelf” feature in Shelf Awareness for Readers (June 12, 2015). Shelf Awareness provided me with a publisher-furnished galley to facilitate the review and compensated me for the feature they received and posted.

book discussion IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT Judy Blume fiction 3Rs Blog
That pre-flight safety advisory probably feels a little more ominous to someone who’s had some personal experience with the “unlikely event” it cautions about. As Judy Blume’s novel In the Unlikely Event opens, Miri Ammerman is nervously boarding a flight to Newark. She is returning to her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey for a ceremony marking the thirty-fifth anniversary of the three successive plane crashes that occurred there during the winter she was in the ninth grade…and hence the nerves. Granted, plane crashes are unlikely. Three in a row, in the same town, is unfathomable. The city of Elizabeth knows all too well it’s not impossible.

In the Unlikely Event is Blume’s first novel for adults in over 15 years, but it’s been on her mind for more than five decades. Like Miri and several other characters in the novel, Blume was an Elizabeth, New Jersey teenager when, in fact, three unrelated airplane disasters between December 1951 and February 1952 killed over 100 people, closed down Newark Airport for nearly a year, and frightened and confused an entire city.

Blume has long been beloved (and occasionally banned) for her children’s and young-adult fiction. In the Unlikely Event is only her fourth adult novel, and while she’s not known for historical fiction with multiple viewpoints and dozens of characters, it’s less of a departure than one might imagine. Yes, it’s about how a town is affected by a series of disasters, but more than that, it’s about how everyday life goes on despite those disasters, and about how the personal dramas and concerns of teenagers tend to occupy most of their attention, regardless of what’s happening around them (or what decade it is).

Miri and her friends talk and speculate about the crashes, but they also talk about boys. They go on dates, fall in love, and fear accidental pregnancy. They worry about their families and argue with their parents. They are growing up in uncertain times and trying to make sense of them. These are things that Judy Blume has always written about, and what we have here is indeed, as the publisher’s blurb puts it, vintage Judy Blume.

In the Unlikely Event vividly evokes its mid-century, New Jersey/New York setting. The facts of the plane crashes are well-researched and seem to be accurately depicted. The interactions between both Blume’s teen characters and their elders feel honest and authentic, and the essence of this novel lies in that–the events that resonate most here are the events that are not unlikely at all.

In her highly anticipated new novel, Judy Blume 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.
Opening Lines:

“Even now she can’t decide. She thinks about flipping a coin. Heads she goes, tails she stays. But isn’t indecisiveness an early sign of mental illness? Didn’t she cover a story about that a few years ago? Or is it that she’s conflicted? Conflicted is better than indecisive. Why is she thinking this way? A voice inside her head says, You know damn well why.

“She steps up to the bank of phones inside the departure lounge and dials her fifteen-year-old daughter, Eliza, at school, but gets her machine. She supposes it’s good news that Eliza has gone to her early-morning class. She’ll try her again when she gets there. if she goes. Otherwise she’ll call from home.

“She’s still weighing the pros and cons an hour later when the flight to Newark is announced and the first-class passengers are invited to board. She feels the panic rising–the dry mouth, the pounding heart, the urge to run. The moment of truth. Once she gets on the plane there will be no turning back. A hot flash washes over her body. For god’s sake, not now, she tells herself, wriggling out of her coat, as sweat pools between her breasts. She takes a deep breath, grabs her carry-on, and heads for the gate. She’s going to do this. She’s not backing down.”

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