Thursday, September 17, 2015

Fiction | Highly Unlikely & Utterly Unbelievable

When I heard early in the spring that Judy Blume was releasing a new adult book this year, I immediately decided it would be my "book published this year" for the Read Harder Challenge. And I'm not even a die-hard Judy Blume fan. Sure, I read lots of her stuff as a kid and enjoyed it, but I like her even more for her nonstop devotion to the library and literacy cause. Truth be told, I forgot she wrote an adult book once, because I never read it.

It was fated, then, that a friend works for Knopf, and one day this summer I found In the Unlikely Event sitting on my doorstop. I got to enjoy this puppy while soaking up sun on my pizza-shaped pool float and in between cat naps. (This school-schedule summer vacation really is the best.)

The premise of In the Unlikely Event is awesome, in a bit of a sadistic kind of way. Though the narrative alternates its focus between several characters, our main point of contact in this story is Miri Ammerman, a teenager in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in the early 1950s. This particular winter, when Miri is fifteen and first finding herself in love, a series of plane crashes, in very short succession, rocks her town and everyone in it. This setting is based on Blume's own experiences as a teenager in shoes very similar to Miri's—at least in terms of time and place. These three plane crashes are actual events from the winter of 1951 that nearly closed Newark Airport for good. Sixty years later, it's still an unbelievable sequence of events.

That's about all the summary I need to share about this book, because that's really what the story hinges on. It's about particular people, yes, but these aren't people that are universal, able to exist in any time or place. This novel is their story in relation to these monumental, unfathomable events happening around them. At some points it feels like life is completely different for them than from before crash number one or number two; at other points, it feels like these crashes are events they witness from a distance and barely internalize, as if it happened in another place to other people. In this regard, it's difficult to really pinpoint what exactly the message is here that Blume is trying to share. Not that it needs a message, per se—perhaps it's just a portrait of an experience; but can we go so far as to call it Miri's coming-of-age, or is it just a snapshot of her life, along with so many others?

What the author was good at here was immersing the reader in the setting with details and ambiance. You can sense Blume's personal connection with the time and place, because she writes with a sense of nostalgia. The story itself opens and closes 30+ years later than the plane crashes, when characters are reuniting to commemorate the events of that terrible winter; and perhaps this contributes to the nostalgic tone—the story, within itself, is somewhat being told as a recollection. I very much enjoyed that we did get to see this peek into the future, to see how these characters turned out. It lent a "full-circle" theme to this story that ultimately just reminds us that life goes on. And while I don't believe this book is a monumental achievement, it's easy and enjoyable enough—with a unique premise that will probably inspire much Google searching—to entertain for an afternoon or two.

Disclaimer: Readers with a fear of flying should perhaps avoid this one.

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