Friday, July 10, 2015

Judy Blume’s ‘In the Unlikely Event’ centers on three plane crashes near Newark Airport

In the Unlikely Event is Judy Blume’s first novel for an adult audience in fifteen years and she says it’s the last long novel she intends to write. At age seventy-seven, she’s entitled to rest on her laurels, especially after having sold more than eighty-five million books.

She is perhaps best known for her Middle-Grade and YA books including, Are You There, God? It’s Me – Margaret. She is known, admired (and sometimes banned) for her frank depiction of topics like masturbation, physically developing bodies, sex and other subjects often avoided in YA novels.

In the Unlikely Event tells the story of three generations of a Jewish family in Elizabeth, New Jersey, mostly in the years 1951 and 1952. It is
structured around the crashes of three planes within eight weeks in the area around Newark Airport. In fact, Blume and her family lived in Elizabeth at the time of these three deadly crashes. One of the planes went down on an iced-over river but the other two exploded near schools and an orphanage, destroying homes. Residents along the flight paths demanded that the airport be closed.

Miri Ammerman, a young teenager, is the daughter of a never-married mother, “Rusty.” They occupy the top-floor apartment and Irene, Miri’s grandmother and Rusty’s mother, occupies the first-floor apartment with her son, Henry, a fledging journalist.

Miri’s best friend Natalie is the daughter of the family dentist, Dr. Osner and his wife, Corinne, who comes from a monied family in Birmingham. Their longtime housekeeper, Mrs. Barnes, is the mother of one of the downed pilots.

All of the characters are affected in one way or another by the crashes: Miri witnesses one of the planes going down. Uncle Henry, the journalist, makes his reputation by reporting on the crashes and eventually is hired by a Washington, D.C. paper. Irene works in a makeshift site set up to feed rescue workers and brings home the widower of one of the passengers killed in the first crash. Dr. Osner is called upon to identify the bodies through dental charts. Natalie is obsessed with Ruby, a professional dancer killed in the first crash, and believes that her body is now “inhabited” by Ruby who talks to her, “instructs” her and eventually tells her to stop eating.

The novel is structured in three main sections (one for each crash), bookended by a kind of prologue and epilogue in which the grown-up Miri returns to Elizabeth to attend a ceremony marking the anniversary of the disasters. Within the three main sections, there are very short sections, each labeled with the name of the POV character of that section.

Blume’s strengths are these: she perfectly captures the mindset and actions of teenagers.  Mira’s tender young first love with a boy who lives in an orphanage is spot-on.  She is also particularly skilled at reproducing the fifties: the Elizabeth Taylor haircuts, the “I dreamed I saved the world in my Maidenform bra,” the Noxema smeared on young complexions to get rid of blemishes, the popular songs, the dances, the nylon tricot half-slips ($3.99), the Kate Smith Show, and so forth.

In an article in the most recent issue of Poets and Writers, Blume says, “I have a fabulous memory for my early life, but I remember very few things about the crashes – which is why I had to do so much research.” That “fabulous memory” for her early life surely informs her ear for young people’s speech and thoughts. And the research is evident in every page of the book.

In spite of these strengths, I did have some difficulties with In the Unlikely Event. It was very slow in starting (although the pace did pick up a little as things went on). There are literally dozens of characters and they are not well-differentiated. I finally had to make a chart and refer regularly to it to keep straight who was related to whom. Apparently, I was not the only one facing this difficulty:

Admittedly, the vast array of characters, who are quickly introduced, can be a little disorienting, and occasionally you might need to flip back pages to remember just who is who. It takes a while before you realize that Blume has threaded these lives together in an essential way and given every one of them importance, even a walk-on character like Longy Zwillman, the local gangster who promotes Las Vegas as the promised land they all need. (Caroline Leavitt, The New York Times, 5/25/15)

And this:

Initially this novel’s multiple-voice structure feels hard to follow. It could have done with a cast list. Early US reviewers report drawing up a chart of the 20-plus narrators in order to keep up. But Miri Ammerman, the first to appear, provides an anchor for the whole narrative. A bright, amusing but gawky teenage girl with the obligatory “perfect” best friend, Miri is being raised by Jewish single mother Rusty, who is equally entertaining. Miri serves as our quasi-sensible guide when everything starts to go wrong, as the inhabitants of Elizabeth struggle to cope with lightning striking three times. Is this related to a government conspiracy? Space aliens? The communists? The local paper reports Elizabeth as being “long fearful because of its proximity to Newark airport.” (Viv Groskop, The Guardian, 6/7/15)

In my view, the novel could have been improved by deleting many of the characters and focusing more deeply on the ones that are central.

In most respects, except for a couple of brief but graphic sex scenes, the book reads very much like a Young Adult novel. It is also oddly flat. Not much is made of the crashes themselves: A few passengers have their short POV sections. The plane goes down. Rescuers rush to the scene. As Caroline Leavitt writes, “…Blume is much more interested in the way people themselves crash and burn, or sometimes manage to fly higher than they expected.”

With the exception of the delusional Natalie, the author doesn’t explore the effects on individuals very deeply, other than to simply state them. It is Grandma Irene’s mantra that survives: Life Goes On.

Judy Blume’s previous adult novels include Wifey, which has sold over 4 million copies to date, Smart Women and Summer Sisters, which remained on The New York Times bestseller list for five months, has sold more than 3 million copies. Blume has won over ninety literary awards, including the 1996 ALA Margaret A. Edwards Award for Forever, published in 1975. According to the citation, “She broke new ground in her frank portrayal of Michael and Katherine, high school seniors who are in love for the first time. Their love and sexuality are described in an open, realistic manner and with great compassion.” In April 2000, the Library of Congress named her to its Living Legends in the Writers and Artists category for her significant contributions to America’s cultural heritage. In 2004 she received the annual Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Medal of the National Book Foundation as someone who “has enriched [American] literary heritage over a life of service, or a corpus of work.”

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