In her highly anticipated new novel, Judy Blume, the New York Times # 1 best-selling author of Summer Sisters and of young adult classics such as Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, creates a richly textured and moving story of three generations of families, friends and strangers, whose lives are profoundly changed by unexpected events.
In 1987, Miri Ammerman returns to her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey, to attend a commemoration of the worst year of her life. Thirty-five years earlier, when Miri was fifteen, and in love for the first time, a succession of airplanes fell from the sky, leaving a community reeling. Against this backdrop of actual events that Blume experienced in the early 1950s, when airline travel was new and exciting and everyone dreamed of going somewhere, she paints a vivid portrait of a particular time and place—Nat King Cole singing “Unforgettable,” Elizabeth Taylor haircuts, young (and not-so-young) love, explosive friendships, A-bomb hysteria, rumors of Communist threat. And a young journalist who makes his name reporting tragedy. Through it all, one generation reminds another that life goes on.
In the Unlikely Event is vintage Judy Blume, with all the hallmarks of Judy Blume’s unparalleled storytelling, and full of memorable characters who cope with loss, remember the good times and, finally, wonder at the joy that keeps them going.
Hardcover, 397 pages
Published June 2nd 2015 by Knopf
Three and a half stars: A fascinating book based on real life events, but it is dragged down with too many points of view.
Miri Ammerman is an average fifteen year old girl, concerned with normal teenage issues. Miri lives with her mother, her uncle and her grandma in Elizabeth, New Jersey. As the holiday season approaches, Miri is busy attending parties and falling in love for the first time. Miri's world is shattered on a Sunday afternoon as she and her mother return home from the matinee. Without warning, a plane falls from the sky, skimming over the town, narrowly missing homes and the nearby school, before crashing into the river, with everyone on board perishing. The town is in shock, but they soldier on and try and put their lives back together, until the unthinkable happens six weeks later, when another plane crashes down in their town, killing innocent bystanders on the ground, and everyone on the plane. In shock, the town questions why this is happening? Is it the communists? Aliens? Zombies? Somehow, they put it behind them again, until it happens again, a third plane crashes down in Elizabeth. How can life ever be normal again when three planes in three months have fallen from the sky and burned in Elizabeth, New Jersey?
What I Liked:
- Judy Blume has long been a favorite author of mine. As a young kid growing up in the eighties, Blume was a staple with her books. Blume was an author that sometimes shocked us with her straightforward, no nonsense approach to what were then taboo topics for kids. Blume returns in what she claims is her last novel. In the Unlikely Event, brings yet another unforgettable teenage voice. Miri is a fifteen year old girl struggling with the ups and downs of adolescence, and then she is faced with three traumatic and shocking air disasters in her hometown. I am certain that Miri in part is Blume as Judy Blume was Miri's age living in Elizabeth during this tragic time. If you are a fan of Blume, this is a must read, especially if it is truly her farewell novel.
- Miri is the heart of the novel. She is the character I clung to amongst the chaos of voices in this novel. What I loved about Miri was that she was a realistic teenage girl growing up in the early 1950s, caught in that difficult stage of still being a kid, but wanting to move into adulthood with her first love and so forth. The three tragedies help thrust her into being an adult sooner than expected. Miri quickly finds herself dealing not only with the aftermath of the tragedy, but also with the sudden illness of her best friend. What I love about Blume's characters is that they are always so genuine, and that Blume never shies away from the topics that others shirk, such as sexuality. This is very much a character driven novel, and I loved that it centered around Miri.
- I was fascinated by the airplane crashes. It was hard to fathom that in a three month period, three planes crashed in the same small town. I can only guess as to how the folks in that community felt after the quick succession of tragedy. Especially if you were a young child, imagine trying to come to terms with three events that others had no explanation for. You would begin to wonder if other forces were at work, and that is exactly what the kids thought. Was it aliens? Zombies? The Communists or something more sinister at work? What makes this even more impactful was that this was based on Blume's real life experience, and that this really happened.
- I am not going to lie, there is a lot going on in this novel. It features multiple view points, I think at least twenty or so. Some narratives were short, sometimes only a page or two, and it was honestly hard to keep track of everyone. Once I settled in and connected to certain characters, I was drawn into the story, and I enjoyed following the characters as they experienced every day life. Again, this is a character driven novel, you have a large cast of characters, and multiple story lines to keep track of, but the one thing they all have in common that connects them are the plane crashes. Even though it required patience, it was a fascinating read.
- One of the aspects that I enjoyed were the numerous clippings included in the story, most were news paper articles written about the plane crashes, but there were a few that featured events and stories pertinent to the time that I found interesting.
- I liked that this novel ended thirty years in the future, and the reader gets to catch up with Miri and many of the other characters in 1987. I loved seeing how they all had fared and what had become of them. It draws to a close nicely.
And The Not So Much:
- The one thing that held this book back was that it had too many points of view. Early on, I struggled with the constant shifting of characters, I had trouble keeping everyone straight. It was a lot to take in and make sense of. It wasn't until the second plane crash that I felt like I settled in. Luckily, I connected with Miri early on, and it was her voice that kept me engaged. I don't understand why there were so many view points, it really muddles the novel.
- The pacing is slow going, I think again, the reason the book moves so slowly is because it is constantly shifting from one character to the next. I felt the book did settle out and get stronger in the second half, so my advice is be patient. If you are not a reader who likes multiple points of view, you will not like this novel.
- One thing that bothered me about the book was that I never had a clear picture as to what was really going on with Natalie. After the first plane crash, she claims that she hears the voice of Ruby, one of the dead passengers. As the book progresses, Natalie becomes more ill. Was her illness a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a nervous break down, or some type of psychological break with reality? Later, she is hospitalized for anorexia, but before that point, she wasn't exhibiting symptoms of the disorder. I wish that it was more clear what was going on with her. Then in the future at the end, I wanted to know what happened to her and how she overcame her problems.
- One other issue I had was that I was wanting more information on how the three tragedies affected air travel. Of course, the people in New Jersey were frightened of planes, but how did the rest of the country view air travel? Newark was closed for a time after the third plane crash, and then it later reopened with air traffic being diverted away from popular areas. Were these tragedies responsible for changing air traffic for all of the U.S.? I was left wanting a better understanding of how these events altered air travel in the U.S.
In the Unlikely Event is an interesting novel, though one that requires patience. In the end, I was drawn into the story by the realistic and fascinating characters as well as the tragic plane crashes that rocked Elizabeth, New Jersey. If you are a fan of Judy Blume and you enjoy character driven books, pick this one up. I must warn you, though, that because of the multiple view points, it is a book that requires patience. Still it is a must read if this indeed going to be Ms. Blume's last novel. I am glad I took the time to read this one.
I borrowed a copy of this book from the library. All opinions are my own and I was not compensated for this review.