In the Unlikely Event
By Judy Blume
416 pages, $27.95
By Emily Simon
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
To say Judy Blume is beloved is a severe understatement.
Judy Blume is revered. She is claimed, and cherished, and clutched close to the hearts of American adolescents and former adolescents, everywhere that books are read. Her reputation and fan base were formed in the 1970s by frank, warm-hearted young adult novels that helped define the genre: “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret;” “Forever,” “Blubber,” “Deenie” and many more. A cynic could easily accuse Blume of having pulled off the world’s most powerful marketing trick: acquiring the brand loyalty of her readers while they’re young and impressionable.
Though she’s a legendary icon of “YA” (as young adult literature is now colloquially known), Blume has also published a few best-selling books aimed at adults, and “In the Unlikely Event” is the latest among them. It has been anxiously awaited, and Blume’s flock will collectively sigh away their anxiety as they tear through the pages, because it does not disappoint.
Like much of today’s middle-aged reading public, I grew up on Judy Blume. I’m an enthusiastic member of Blume’s adult audience who was once a slavish member of her “young adult” audience. And as a female half-Jewish only child with the same last name, I long assumed that my intense over-identification with Margaret Simon (heroine of “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret.”) was unique to me. With adulthood came the realization that nearly all young people who read Judy Blume feel proprietary toward her in this way. We’re all passionately certain that she speaks to us and for us alone.
Blume’s great gift is this personal touch; her unflinching but reassuring voice – that of a no-nonsense big sister who gives it to you straight, then gives you a hug – characterizes her adult novels as distinctly as it does her YA output.
“In the Unlikely Event” is the story of a series of unexplained plane crashes striking Elizabeth, N.J., in 1951 and 1952, told mostly from the perspective of Miri Ammerman. Miri is a 15-year-old Jewish girl with a single mother, a fierce grandmother, and a nerve-wrackingly precarious place in her town’s rigid class structure. Though Miri is certainly a young adult, “In the Unlikely Event” is certainly not young adult fiction. But Blume’s stylistic consistency makes it hard to distinguish between the genres in her oeuvre, and this novel more than any of her others raises the question: how do we know the difference?
Like many young adult novels, “In the Unlikely Event” is a coming-of-age story. The reader awakens to the realities of the life surrounding Miri in synchronicity with her. But rather than trapping us solely in Miri’s teen angst-ridden head, Blume speaks through a series of other voices as well – including adult Miri, Miri’s boyfriend, a few plane crash victims, her best friend’s father’s employees and many others. The micro concerns of childhood and the macro concerns of adults share the stage here, and Blume lovingly shows us how shifting one’s attention from one to the other is the defining feature of adolescence. Miri experiences first love with a heroic but inappropriate boy, and learns things about her family and friends that she wishes she hadn’t, all at the same time that the sky is literally falling around her.
The beauty of Blume is that she wouldn’t be caught dead writing a sentence like “adolescence can feel as terrifying as planes falling around you for no reason, forcing you to confront steaming wreckage and smell burning bodies when you’d really rather just think about how dreamy your boyfriend is.” Yet that is exactly what she’s saying, in a voice so clear a child could understand it.
Miri sees and realizes horrible things as the unlikely events transpire around her, but because it’s Blume’s story, it’s not ultimately one of despair. The people surrounding Miri are also revealed to be surprising and resilient and decent. Many things they thought would kill them in fact make them stronger. To some, this tendency of Blume’s to light a hopeful path for her readers is the scarlet “YA” she must always bear, regardless of who her audience may be, and regardless of the fact that there are passages in this book no child should read, and no teenager could truly comprehend.
Blume has gone back in time, to her own 1950s teendom, once before, with her young adult novel “Starring Sally J Friedman As Herself”. But “Starring Sally J” is clearly a book for children: it stayed firmly within the perspective of Sally at the age of 10, with all of the limitations that age imposes upon the understanding of adult concerns. By widening the lens and changing the voice repeatedly, “In the Unlikely Event” reveals more scope and depth. “In the Unlikely Event” implicates the stifling constructs of 1950s middle-class New Jersey without ever taking direct aim at them. It exposes the ways in which class, gender, religion and pure luck can alter the course of a life without Blume ever having to take direct or remotely political aim at anything. It’s hard to imagine more “adult” themes than those of “In the Unlikely Event”: sex, death, class and the falling of scales from one’s eyes.
Last year, Slate online magazine published “Against YA”, an article by Ruth Graham objecting to the trend of adults reading YA literature. It was met with a giant wall of resistance and counter-argument that did more to define the genre than Graham’s article could ever have attempted.
Graham cited “…escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia” as features of YA lit. So let’s put “In the Unlikely Event” to the test. Nostalgia? Check. It’s floridly evocative: high school slow dances to ’50s music, the smell of a mother’s perfume, the feel of winter – bright, cold, bleak, with nooks of warm refuge for which one immediately yearns when one is propelled from them. And is there nostalgia FOR Judy Blume in many of today’s adult readers? Oh yes.
But if nostalgia is for teenagers, then so is Proust. And “escapism” and “instant gratification”? Here the buzzer sounds: these characteristics are absent from all of Blume’s work, and from most of the YA of her era.
It’s now generally acknowledged that Blume helped shape a “Golden Age” of young adult fiction beginning in the late ’60s and blossoming throughout the ’70s, along with Norma Klein, Lois Duncan, Robert Corimer, Paul Zindel and others. This lasted until sometime during the Reagan years, when alarmed parents seemed to suddenly realize that their children were reading honest, well-written works about periods, masturbation, early sexual encounters, death, cruelty and the inevitable failure of adults to protect children from the experience of growing up. So the Golden Age was cut short by the swiftly fallen sword of The Age of Censorship, when classic young adult books were banned, causing Blume herself to commence decades of passionate anti-censorship activism.
Blume and her peers were writing adult novels for young people. And we all seem to agree that an adult novel has to be complex, layered, perhaps a little difficult. It should strain your brain, expand your horizons, cause you to see things in a new way. It should be formally adventurous, thematically surprising, and honest.
To quote Graham again, “YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction – of the real world – is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction.”
“In the Unlikely Event” fails this test as blazingly as a ball of burning metal falling from the sky. All the fiction of Judy Blume – along with her peers from her Golden Age of YA – directly addresses “the emotional and moral ambiguity … of the real world,” whether she is writing for adults or adolescents. Her endings don’t pander to her reader’s prefab emotions. If they are satisfying it’s solely because they are organic to the stories they’re ending.
So in the end, what is the difference between what an adolescent reader needs from art and what an adult needs? There’s certainly a difference between what they may be capable of understanding. But who needs her perceptions challenged, and who needs his affirmed? Can this be determined by one’s age? No matter what, should the comfortable be disturbed and the disturbed comforted?
If so, “In the Unlikely Event,” like all of the best work in any genre by writers as good as Blume, truly transcends by consistently doing both.
Emily Simon is a Buffalo-born writer now living in California.