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Review: In The Unlikely Event

Beauty of going back with upbeat Blume

In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume, Picador, £16.00

    Judy Blume: utter pleasure to read (Photo: Elena Seibert)
    Judy Blume: utter pleasure to read (Photo: Elena Seibert)

    I can't be alone in having Judy Blume to thank for introducing me to subjects including those as varied as racism, bra size, the Nazis, and underage sex. The bestselling American writer has authored nearly 30 novels for adults, teenagers and younger children since starting out in 1969, and her latest comes with an endorsement from Girls star Lena Dunham, no less.

    From Are You There God? It's Me Margaret, with its inimitable heroine reciting a rhyme in order to increase her bust, to Forever, which has left a generation of women unable to hear the name Ralph without sniggering, Blume did what few other authors would at the time; she wrote graphically and honestly about the embarrassing parts of adolescence.

    Now seen as something of an international treasure, it's hard to imagine there was a time when her books were being banned.

    In The Unlikely Event (Picador £16.99), an adult-aimed novel about the goings on in a largely Jewish New Jersey area in the 1950s, is hardly a break with tradition, focusing on family feuds, teenage heartbreak and intermarriage.

    Inspired by the tragic events of 1952, when three planes crashed into the town of Elizabeth as they departed Newark airport, it tells dozens of separate stories and follows an enormous cast of characters, from Jewish gangsters to have-a-go heroes and wide-eyed reporters, along with Broadway stars and squabbling couples.

    At the heart of it all is 15-year-old Miri Ammerman, a sparky Jewish girl living with a single mother, who we can only assume is a proto-Blume.

    Blume herself hasn't written an adult novel for 15 years and, while In The Unlikely Event is an utter pleasure to read, you can see why. She's just as sharp in her observations of relationships as she always was, and just as good at bringing a community to life but her style is dated and her writing tends to tell simply rather than challenge. Characters are given detailed back-stories, but their inner turmoil seems sanitised. The men and women we meet are plucky and generally well-meaning; they suffer, but loose ends are rarely left untied for long. The stories - of high-school dances and teenage kisses - are suffused with a simplicity that is rarely seen any more, and overlook almost entirely the social and political wounds of the time, save for a few mentions of the Red Scare.

    Writing about youthful fumbling or extramarital pregnancy might once have been subversive; in the days of sexting and Snapchat it appears a tad trite.

    Yet, for all that, I adored it. If you enjoyed Blume's writing as a teenager, you'll love this for its affectionate portraits of small-town life, for its innocence, for the fact that Blume is still adept at creating a world and animating it. It's the opposite of gritty, but then, there are plenty of authors offering that. These days, popular fiction is consumed with tales of murder and manipulation, terminal illness, child abuse and violence.

    Once in a while, it's very pleasant to read something a little more upbeat.

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