If you grew up reading Judy Blume in the 1970s and ’80s, her novels were likely an illicit, parentally unsanctioned thrill. Forever, about high school seniors who “go all the way,” was the book you read, by flashlight, under the covers, flipping to the corner-folded pages in a handed-down copy from your best friend. Most of her other books contained frank descriptions of subjects—masturbation, menstruation, the aching desire for noticeable breasts—with which you had intimate knowledge, but about which you felt certain your parents hadn’t a clue.
Fast-forward several decades. Today, novels about teenagers are as likely to be read by fortysomething mothers as their teen daughters, or appear on the shelves of houses with no children at all. As books marketed as Young Adult take up more and more real estate in bookstores, fans and critics debate whether the designation is even necessary, of if the term “young adult” ghettoizes literature that happens to feature young protagonists. Blume’s latest book, In the Unlikely Event, just her third for adults, turns that question on its head, as it makes a reader wonder what, exactly, makes a book simply “adult.”
With Blume’s first two novels for adults, Wifey and Summer Sisters, the answer was obvious: graphic sex, and a lack of young characters. Her latest novel (which she claims will be her last for an adult audience) has a paucity of the first and an abundance of the second. There is nothing in In the Unlikely Event that would make it inappropriate for a worldly 12-year-old reader. Whether it contains the sort of complex characters and mature insights to make it rewarding for a sophisticated adult reader is another question.
In the Unlikely Event chronicles the true-life spate of plane crashes in Elizabeth, New Jersey, over a period of months in 1951. Blume, who was a teen in the town during that time, has said the novel is partly autobiographical, and we can assume her literary doppelgänger is Miri, the Jewish girl for whom the crashes are the backdrop to a year of first love, family drama, and the budding inclination to be a writer (via an editorial for her school paper in which she insists there’s a conspiracy at work behind the crashes, and the children of the town may be being targeted. Spoiler alert: They’re not.). Miri, like most of the characters in the book, is Jewish, coming of age less than a decade after the Holocaust, but she is largely untroubled about her ethnicity. In this way, Miri feels more authentic than many young Jewish characters who are burdened with an understanding of history, prejudice, and persecution far beyond their years. Like most teens, her concerns are largely of herself; her thoughts and impressions fairly shallow.
Unfortunately, the adults in the novel are not any more deeply drawn. Rusty, Miri’s mother, is introduced picking out salts for her bath: “Was she in a lavender mood, vanilla, musk? Yes, musk.” The rest of the characters’ emotions are similarly as easily labeled as flavors of bath salts. A minor character hopes her boyfriend will “pop the question,” because she “really, really liked” him. Another character, “beside herself with worry” she might be pregnant, indicates her anxiety by leaving the cap off the toothpaste. People “seem stressed,” they get “giddy” at the thought of riding a horse, they need “a stiff drink” after a trying day. Whenever a character approaches introspection, the impulse is quickly dismissed: “She had to stop asking herself these questions. They only upset her and made everything worse.”
Blume has assembled a large ensemble cast for this novel, and they serve as a sort of Greek chorus of conventionality, for the most part adhering to the mores of the time. There is much discussion of food, of outfits, of holiday gifts, and wedding décor. Blume did extensive research in writing the book, and some scenes feel like excuses to showcase period details, as though she’s more engaged with the menu at a ladies’ luncheon than the emotions of the women eating the food. The novel rarely strays from cultural depictions of the 1950s, from Happy Days to Mad Men, as a time of conformity, emotional repression, and snazzy outfits.
A few characters do chafe against the constraints of their time and circumstance, and for them, books offer a way out. Steve, the older brother of Miri’s best friend, is a sensitive, emotionally fragile character who takes solace in his copy of The Catcher in the Rye: “Holden was his friend, the one person who could understand what Steve was thinking, and the unbearable sadness he was feeling.” Another book, the sex manual Love Without Fear, gives guidance to a curious young woman embarking on her first relationship. Start paying attention, and you will see books everywhere in the novel—a “racy” Mickey Spillane thriller, Ethan Frome, Slaughterhouse Five. There is little discussion of literature, and the characters who read do so quietly, at times furtively, but gratefully—much in the way, a few decades later, Blume’s own novels will console generations of lonely, confused teenagers.