Published by Knopf
Publication date: June 2nd 2015
Genres: Fiction, Historical
As a young girl growing up in the 1970s there were few reading experiences more ubiquitous than discovering that author Judy Blume understood you. That she seemed, in fact, to be a teenage girl herself who was reaching off the page to make you feel less alone. I don’t know many women who did not read and relate to Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Blume has gone on to a successful career writing both YA and adult fiction but I had not followed her work so was excited to see that she had a new novel coming out. Set in the 1950s and based on very real and unusual events, In the Unlikely Event is about three planes that crash in Elizabeth, New Jersey in less than two months and the effect of those crashes on the city.
In short order, Blume assembles a large and varied cast with a teenage girl named Miri at its center. She lives alone with her mother in Elizabeth. While we follow Miri throughout the novel Blume cycles through numerous other characters in In the Unlikely Event with mixed results. The passengers on the planes and the quick glimpses of their lives and their thoughts provide emotional immediacy but there the contact ends. Instead, a growing stream of ancillary characters appears and exits with very little definition. Blume excels at recapturing the details of the 1950s with the right products, the fear of Communism, aliens, and government conspiracies—the superficialities of society at that time—but the cast of characters grows at a pace that means few hold the stage for more than part of a chapter or two. With so many disparate stories In the Unlikely Event is left feeling like a news article—everything is recounted with no sense of emotion or connection.
As someone who related to Blume’s work so strongly, the dissonance between the novels I loved and In the Unlikely Event was difficult to understand until I realized that essentially, the novel is Miri’s story and it read that way, as if it were written for a young adult audience with very little interest or understanding of adult lives. This could have worked if the novel was written from Miri’s perspective but in the third person omniscient the impact was scattered and the grown-ups came off as confusing, cardboard characters. Sadly, the Judy Blume I loved as a young girl did not engage me as an adult. Instead, I was left disappointed.