Judy Blume, the storyteller who took on religion, adolescence, and bras in the young-adult novel “Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret,” shocked readers with a teen’s family tragedy in “Tiger Eyes,” and dissected steamy extramarital affairs in the novel “Wifey” (which was intended for adults, but was stolen and hidden under the beds of many Gen X teens), has released her first new adult novel in 17 years.
The publisher says “In the Unlikely Event” is for grown-ups, but it has all the qualities of a young-adult classic.
To start, the heroine is a 15-year-old, the wise-beyond-her-years, funny, and strong-willed Miri Ammerman. Then there’s the fact that almost everyone in the novel is coming of age — even the adults seem to be going through the final stages of adolescence, maybe because some of them still live with their parents.
And finally, there’s the fact that a few of the characters spend part of the book contemplating their virginity. It makes sense; the story takes place during the early 1950s. Even the 20-somethings, assuming they’re still unmarried, are stressed about going all the way.
Blume has set the novel in her childhood hometown of Elizabeth, N.J., and it’s based on actual events in 1951 and 1952, when a series of planes crashed around the city, killing passengers and people on the ground.
Miri is one of about a dozen locals we get to know as the tale unfolds. Rusty is Miri’s strong single mom, who keeps her love life private and refuses to talk about Miri’s dad; Henry, Miri’s uncle, chronicles the crashes for the local paper; Natalie, Miri’s best friend, believes she’s being haunted by a crash victim; Steve, Natalie’s older brother, finds solace in “The Catcher in the Rye”; Christina, who works for Natalie and Steve’s dad, is supposed to find a Greek husband to please her family, but is secretly dating a man named Jack McKittrick.
The book begins and ends with an unnecessary prologue and epilogue set in the 1980s, when a grown Miri is returning to Elizabeth to memorialize the crashes, but most of the book keeps us in the past.
There are enough characters and story lines at the start of the novel to confuse even an attentive reader, but about a third of the way in, it starts to click. Blume succeeds in capturing the condition of an entire community — from the claustrophobia of families living with three generations in one household to the subtle class differences between families in the same neighborhood, particularly between middle- and upper-class Jews.
The plane crashes are at the center of Blume’s tale, but she’s far more focused on how her fictional characters cope with uncertainty. With the threat of air tragedy looming, characters’ personalities shift. Adults reassess their marriages; children begin thinking like adults; and in some cases, ’50s-era morals and conventions go out the window.
Christina is a witness to one of the crashes and winds up helping victims at the scene, assuring a woman on the ground that she won’t die. It’s surreal and horrific, and Christina’s experience brings about an epiphany later: “Life is short, Christina told herself while scrubbing her hands. At least she wouldn’t die a virgin.”
Blume explains in a postscript that the real crashes occurred when she was a student at Hamilton Junior High and that she used firsthand memories and newspaper clips to inform the story. The postscript makes it easier to assume that the character of Miri is at least partly based on Blume.
The autobiographical elements of “In the Unlikely Event” explain why Blume’s story works best when we’re following Miri, who spends the book figuring out the meaning of the accidents, dealing with the possible return of a father she never knew, and falling in love for the first time. No one captures coming-of-age milestones and stomach butterflies like Blume, and those scenes are worth waiting for.
“His breath was near her ear, making her tingle,” she writes of Miri’s first dance with the mysterious Mason McKittrick. “Then the song ended and he was gone. . . . She didn’t even know his name. . . . She hoped her blue angora sweater — the one she kept in a garment bag on the top shelf of the fridge — had shed just enough onto his flannel shirt to remind him of her.”
Throughout the novel it’s clear that Blume is smitten with her character Henry Ammerman, the reporter who’s the kind of guy you want to be — or marry. In fact, Blume dedicates the book to her husband, George, “My Henry Ammerman.”
But when the story is over, it’s Miri’s voice — her wise observations, her surprisingly adult perspectives, and her humor — that you miss.
IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT
By Judy Blume
Knopf, 397 pp., $27.95
Meredith Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.