In the Unlikely Event
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.