Judy Blume, whose In the Unlikely Event is out now. Photo: LINDA NYLIND/THE GUARDIAN
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Even as an adult, reading Judy Blume feels like being admitted into a secret club

In the Unlikely Event is Blume's first novel for adults since 1998. If only grown-up fiction learned from teen writing more often.

In the Unlikely Event
Judy Blume
Picador, 402pp, £16.99

Judy Blume’s latest novel for adults – her first since Summer Sisters in 1998 – starts with the main character, Miri, taking her seat on an aeroplane and being shuttled back into her past. It’s 1987 and she’s rehearsing a reading as she flies: “But we’re still part of a secret club,/One we’d never willingly join,/With members who have nothing in common except a time and a place,” runs her poem, written for the 35th anniversary of a terrible year for her home town of Elizabeth. In 1952, three planes fell out the sky over New Jersey – not just in the novel but in real life. Blume grew up in Elizabeth. Born in 1938, she is the same age as Miri and, like her, Jewish. Real names, objects and snippets of contemporary reports slip through the fiction, the actual bound to the invented by the invisible work of a practised darning needle.

In the Unlikely Event is a homecoming of sorts for Blume – and it will be for many readers as well. Long before Miri reaches her destination, I have been slingshot into my own history. Skimming down the “Also by this author” list at the front of the book, my eye snags on Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret; Otherwise Known As Sheila the Great; Blubber – title after title that I know as intimately as school-taught hymns. And then I am not sitting on my grown-up sofa any more but instead can feel the coarse, short pile of municipal carpet. I am small and hunched up by the shelves in Oakham Library, drawing down the plastic-sleeved paperbacks and swallowing the words as quickly as I can.

Perhaps adolescence is another club that no one would willingly join. But every girl since 1970 who has had to go through that rough induction into spots and blood and crushes and sudden flesh (or the failure of flesh to show up where it’s supposed to) has been able to join the fellowship of Blume readers. With her mix of frankness, clarity and perfect kindness, Blume’s fiction for teens offers a map of incipient adulthood. She never undermines the seriousness of her characters’ experiences, though her narration always has the leavening good sense acquired through time. It’s Not the End of the World, as one of her titles has it. She’s the aunt you could tell everything to, except there’s no need because she already knows exactly what you’re going through and has described it perfectly.

In the Unlikely Event has all of these fine qualities. It’s distinguished from her work for young adults by being a little freer with the curses (though we’re talking a handful of judicious F-bomb detonations, not cascades of profanity), a little more explicit with the sex, a fair bit longer – and by using that extra space to say more about the adult characters, although the novel is still dominated by Miri’s sharp-eyed teenage viewpoint. That’s all the difference there is and that is no insult. It would be better by far if the trade paths of influence between young adult and adult fiction worked this way more often, with the grown-up stuff learning warmth from the junior genre, rather than everyone mistaking sadism for seriousness.

Instead, narrative compassion thrives here. Ultimately what bonds the characters isn’t just the trauma of disaster, although that supplies the structure and impetus of the novel. Their connections are forged from the ordinary order of devastations – the heartache of people maturing in different directions and forever-friendships ­splitting, the heart-bursting experience of a first kiss, the adult desire that smashes through all legal bonds and becomes a pragmatically delivered announcement over a family dinner in a pizzeria. All are captured keenly by Blume, who has a loving curator’s eye for people.

She’s a collector of things, too. Tenderly archived within the novel are sweetheart necklines, organza overskirts, pop songs that just happen to be playing when they are most meaningful, yellow Cadillacs and plates of chicken à la king – the stuff of the 1950s.

The way the story is told serves its emotional purpose well. The novel shifts through more than a dozen different narrators, all with their own impeded view of each other and of themselves. Sometimes, the sheer number of lives entwined under the penumbra of the air disasters is almost overwhelming and I occasionally caught myself counting back clumsily on my fingers: this character works with that character who shares this surname with the person we met in the underwear shop earlier. But Blume is too gifted and too experienced for these moments to last long or damage the book. Instead, they serve as small reminders of everyone’s partiality. The characters’ various blind spots become one more thing they have in common.

One particularly sweet theme that runs through the novel is the passing on of fiction from adults to adolescents: a copy of The Catcher in the Rye changes hands and there is a brief but lovely cameo for The Member of the Wedding, Carson ­McCullers’s humid and antsy evocation of a teenage tomboy’s coming of age, published in 1946. One suspects that these were among the novels that helped to map the world for Blume when she was in her teens and their relay through the generations underscores the community that readers have: even our most private, lonely and terrible moments have been shared by someone before us. Books – and Blume’s in particular – are a secret club that we opt into happily.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

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Spotify, Netflix and now shared driverless cars: why don’t we own anything anymore?

With shared self-driving cars on the horizon, companies are forcing us into a minimalism that is profitable for them, but questionable for us.

For decades, the answer to all our collective self-doubt, anxiety, and existential sadness has been to buy, buy, buy. This was particularly evident during the Nineties and Noughties, which, in terms of business, were all about mass production, mass consumption and, inevitably, mass accumulation.

Companies targeted the general public with the message that without owning their latest fad – no matter how trivial it appeared – we wouldn’t be as productive, as beautiful, and, perhaps most frightening of all, as happy. And although material objects took up physical space, they certainly didn’t fill the metaphorical void.

It didn’t take long for artists to respond to the socio-economic ennui. Movies, in particular – from The Truman Show to, more strangely and recently, Disney’s Wall-E – critiqued mass consumption and consequent possession-hoarding. Literature, too – perhaps most famously Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, which was later adapted for film – studied the monstrous nature of hypercapitalism and the beasts it produces.

Despite being some of the most visually provocative commerce-related works to date (and despite anti-capitalist cinema becoming a genre in itself), they didn’t stop our needless purchase-making and endless consumption.

Aside from the self-proclaimed “minimalists”, that is. In a rally against the monopoly of McDonald’s, malls, and mass consumption, the reactionary lifestyle movement arose somewhat organically. A typical modern minimalist isn’t an artist with a penchant for sparse work, but instead somebody who, in an attempt to get back-to-basics, threw out unneeded wares and pared down to the absolute necessities. For their bodies: a few basic shirts and trousers, a basic pair of shoes. In their households: a dining table, some chairs, a fold-up bed. No excess. Minimalists professed that this alternative way of living made them feel happier, and by unshackling themselves and their homes of all the stuff they’d accumulated over the years, they consequently felt far freer. Maybe not free in the absolute sense of the word, but freer nonetheless.

Fast forward a few years to 2018 and minimalism has become something of an online trend, with people sharing tips on ways to declutter and downsize. It has become a lifestyle. We go on digital detoxes and follow the anti-clutter guru Marie Kondo. These changes go beyond the physical and into the digital world – old files, data, and the hundreds of undeleted emails you have are perceived to be just as burdensome as the unused blender stashed in the cupboard. It is mindfulness over matter.

Inevitably, commercial businesses are buying into the vogue of reduction, too: their message for consumers is to no longer to purchase and own wares, but to subscribe to and rent them instead. Ownership – of music, films, cars, and even office space – is, apparently, so last decade. And what you do own, you should “share”: put your flat on Airbnb, for example, or rent your car to Uber or Lyft.

“Flexibility”, “choice” and “ease” have become the tropes of modern marketing. The likes of Netflix, Spotify, Hulu, Apple, and Amazon proclaim that our lives could be simpler, smoother, if we trade ownership for non-permanence. And it’s not just entertainment-orientated businesses, either: even the way we travel has begun to fundamentally change. With London’s Santander bike programme, Uber taxis, and, in future, shared self-driving cars, the rent-on-demand and subscription model has superseded outright buying.

It’s not like we’re paying any less for the inadequacy: we’re still handing over a sizeable chunk of money every month to a small handful of wealthy, unaccountable businesses. Whoever we’re subscribing to and renting from haven’t struck gold so much as a goldmine: they earn more while handing over less.

The culture has shifted, in a subtle and violent way, from one of accumulating too much to one approaching a forced minimalism, which is just as expensive, competitive and decadent as before. Perhaps even the minimalists who appear on Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things (which is currently, and somewhat ironically, streaming on Netflix) wouldn’t agree with everybody being strong-armed into a way of life where we are progressively losing more and paying more for the privilege.

Thom James is a writer based in London.