As you may have heard, Judy Blume is back this summer with a new book, her first for adults in over 15 years. In The Unlikely Event takes place in 1952 (when Blume was a teenager), in her hometown of Elizabeth, NJ. It is based on real events: three unrelated incidents of planes taking off or landing at Newark Airport and crashing in the suburban town of Elizabeth, all within a six-week period. While the characters are fictional, Blume based her book on both her memories of that scary time in her life and on extensive research done over the last 5 years.
The story is told mostly by classic Blume protagonist Miri Ammerman, a 14 year-old Jewish girl living in the suburbs. (Hello, Margaret, Sally, and Deenie!). Miri witnesses the first crash, and her last year of middle school is punctuated by the second two crashes as well as her first boyfriend, the sudden appearance of her father, and the loss of her best friend. In The Unlikely Event also has a host of other narrators: Miri’s family, her best friend’s family, people on the planes, people on the ground, and others in the community. Some reviewers have complained that there are too many characters to keep straight, but that didn’t bother me.
So, people seem to have loved this book (despite the confusing parade of narrators). I wish I had, but I didn’t. It read like an old-fashioned Judy Blume book to me, not like adult fiction. I found the characters to be pretty two-dimensional. They had flaws, some unexpected, but they were still pretty shallow. The dialogue was often predictable and cliched, and momentous things kept happening within very short time periods. One man lost his wife in the first crash and was paired off with another within a month. Miri’s father appeared in her life, causing her great angst, but the two of them never had a real conversation. An entire family broke apart within the course of a few weeks. It all felt rushed and oversimplified. I think I would have enjoyed the book more if I had read it when I read the rest of Judy Blume’s books, but I read too much else these days and this just didn’t compare.
I also thought that Blume’s treatment of the crashes was underdeveloped. Blume didn’t spare the grisly details, but I was still left wondering more about how the crashes impacted air travel, tourism and the local community.
The last chapter jumped ahead 30 years, when Miri was in her 40s and more mature. Unsurprisingly, that’s the chapter found the most satisfying. I liked learning how her life had turned out, and I thought Blume wrapped things up pretty realistically.
I am definitely in the minority. (I feel sort of traitorous even writing this review!) Most reviewers loved In The Unlikely Event, so if you’re a Judy Blume fan, give it a try. I should also note that the book does reflect the time period pretty well, and the naivete and girlishness of many of the characters may be pretty accurate for the 50s.
I listened to In The Unlikely Event on audio. The narration did not help the cause, as I found the narrator’s voice and diction pretty much spot on for a 14 year-old girl. That was fine for Miri’s sections, but it exacerbated my frustration with the (lack of) maturity of the other characters.
Sorry I am not more positive about this book – I really wanted to like it.