Book review: In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

I don’t think legend is too big a word to use when it comes to Judy Blume. The author is responsible for many of the books teenage girls (and probably some boys) grew up with, from my personal favourites Deenie and Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson, through to Forever, much whispered about in school hallways.

Blume taught generations of teenage girls about growing up, but she has also turned her brand of insight to adult novels, of which In the Unlikely Event is her newest. It’s not untrue to say that news of In the Unlikely Event‘s release was greeted with excitement by Blume’s fans.

When Miri Ammerman was a 15-year-old living in Elizabeth, New Jersey, three planes fell from the sky within three months, leaving the town reeling. (It’s worth saying here that three planes really did crash in Blume’s hometown when she was growing up.) The crashes bring friends, families and strangers closer together, all trying to find a way to come to terms with the death that has come to their doorsteps.

In the Unlikely Event is classic Judy Blume – an intuitive look at the inner workings of teenage girls. Miri is in that period of her life where she’s no longer a child and not yet an adult. But being confronted by so much death and danger means she has to grow up fast, and her family situation often sees her acting as the parent – Miri calls her mum Rusty and not mum, and Rusty is very much the antithesis of all the other mothers Miri knows.

The trauma of the multiple plane crashes looms large over the town of Elizabeth and they affect some residents more than others – Miri’s best friend Natalie thinks a dead dancer from the first plane crash is speaking to her, Natalie’s brother Steve finds himself unexpectedly grieving, while Miri’s uncle Henry makes his name as a journalist on his coverage of the crashes, and Miri’s boyfriend Mason becomes a hero to the town. Blume explores post traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders and more, which seem to be linked to the crashes in some ways, but in others are not. 

Because while this is a story about three plane crashes, it is just as much a novel about the day to day lives of the town’s habitants. In between the crashes life goes on as normal, with affairs and secret relationships, squabbling families and schoolchildren who want to feel like they matter. There are teenagers trying to grow up, adults navigating life, and everyday problems rearing their ugly heads.

With so much death at the centre of the novel, In the Unlikely Event could easily leave you feeling despondent. But while it is a serious novel, it’s also a novel about life, and the very thing that keeps us feeling alive – love. There is familial love, with Miri’s unusual (for 1970s small-town New Jersey) family working together as a unit, and working as a contrast to Natalie’s rather more conventional yet also more fractured family. And there is romantic love, with characters like Christina trying to find a way to balance her love life and her family life. And of course there is sex – Blume’s characters use sex (with and without love involved) in a number of ways, but mainly to feel alive (even before the plane crash).

In the Unlikely Event is filled with tension and drama, and is a wonderful look at love, at how we respond to trauma, at becoming a grown up, and at living life to the fullest.

*In the Unlikely Event is out in the UK on June 4, 2015.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Picador. This did not affect my review.

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