In The Unlikely Event by Judy Blume, book review: Love and friendship set against a backdrop of extraordinary tragedy

Judy Blume finally draws on her own teen experiences – and it was worth the wait, finds Lucy Scholes
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Judy Blume is treasured the world over as the "original queen of teen". She wrote YA novels before the genre even existed, depicting adolescence in a way that was both honest and relatable. Weight issues, periods, boys and sex: you name it, Blume wrote about it – and we all loved her for it.

From eagerly replicating the "We must – we must – we must increase our bust" exercises from Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret (guilty as charged), to learning about sex from Forever, all women of a certain age have memories of how Blume's novels influenced their experience of growing up.

Her forays into the world of adult fiction – Wifey, Smart Women and Summer Sisters – have been no less successful, each spending weeks on the bestseller lists; perhaps because they weren't really a departure from her tried-and-tested formula. She afforded her adult protagonists the same complex inner worlds as her teenage ones, adapting the politics of the playground to those concerning work and motherhood, and replacing the potholes that littered the playing field of first love with the landmines scattered across the landscape of marriage, infidelity and divorce. Summer Sisters in particular bridged these two worlds, beginning life as a story for teenagers, but eventually charting the close relationship between two school friends long into adulthood.

Similarly, although In the Unlikely Event is ostensibly a novel for adults for the eight-month period during which the bulk of the narrative is set, Miri, Blume's central protagonist, is only a tender 15 years old, and interestingly, for a writer who's shaped countless girls' teenage years, Blume has finally turned to the experiences of her own adolescence as inspiration for this, her latest work.

Set in the New Jersey city of Elizabeth where Blume grew up, In the Unlikely Event offers readers the classic Blume experience – a nuanced portrayal of the everyday intricacies of love and friendship – but set against a backdrop of extraordinary tragedy. Between mid-December 1951 and early February 1952, Elizabeth was the site of three horrific plane crashes that together killed 116 people – passengers, aircrew and locals. It's impossible to read the novel without drawing parallels with more recent history and the catastrophes suffered by Malaysia Airlines last year, but while modern media meant that the entire world mourned those tragedies, Blume's book, set in a period before 24-hour news channels or the internet, focuses on what it felt like to live in a single city under siege.

Miri, Blume's fictional alter ego (she's the same age as the author was at the time of the accidents), sits at the heart of the story, but the novel explores the impact on the entire community, adults and children alike.

Friends, relations and lovers are lost, of course, but some of the shockwaves play out in subtler ways. There's Miri's uncle Henry, a newspaperman who makes a name for himself reporting the crashes; her best friend Natalie, who believes she is possessed by a 22-year-old dancer named Ruby, one of the passengers who perished in the first crash, and ends up in hospital after a mental breakdown; Christina, who works at Natalie's father's dental practice, misses her period because of the stress, and marries her boyfriend in secret, fearing she is pregnant, only to discover a week later that it was a false alarm. Everybody is tangled up in the tragedies in some way, direct or indirect, significant or slight. As Harry notes: "I'm talking to anyone who has a story to tell, and so far, that's pretty much everyone."

Tragedy: Firemen at the scene of the 1952 American Airlines crash in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in 1952 (Corbis)

Blume effortlessly switches back and forth between the different perspectives of her many protagonists; some we meet only fleetingly, allowing us a brief summary of the futures they've mapped out for themselves before they hurtle to their deaths – an obvious but nonetheless effective tug on the heartstrings – others we return to again and again. The swiftness of these transitions is occasionally jarring, but for the most part it effectively builds up the sense of an entire community rocked by tragedy, and any resultant disorientation actually feeds into the central premise of the book: sometimes terrible things happen for no good reason, and try as you might, you can't impose meaning where there is none.

This existential struggle affects the younger generation most keenly. There are some powerful central sections in which the usual delineation between the characters is abandoned as the teenagers respond en masse to what they perceive as a threat directed at them – the first plane narrowly misses crashing into a building where a group of 100 children are enjoying a holiday party; the second skims the roof of a high school, a mere 45 minutes after 1,000 girls are dismissed for the day; and the final plane actually crashes only yards from a children's home, some of the older inhabitants pulling survivors from the mangled wreckage, the field beneath them transformed into a "muddy, bloodstained junkyard". Conspiracy theories, from a Communist plot against America (this is the era of McCarthy and the Rosenbergs) to UFOs abound in an outbreak of mild hysteria as run-of-the-mill adolescent fears become entangled with the trauma the larger community is suffering.

Unsurprisingly, a central message about the arbitrary nature of human existence somewhat precludes a satisfying conclusion. Even though the characters' lives continue – Miri falls in love for the first time; friendships ebb and flow; and the adults have their own dramas to contend with: they get married, have children, cheat on their significant others, and begin divorce proceedings – once the plane crashes cease (after the third, Newark airport is closed until further notice) the story can't help but lose some of its momentum. But no one reads Blume's books for unexpected twists and turns or cliff-hanging conclusions – what she offers is something much more reliable.

"Life is a series of unlikely events, isn't it?" declares the 50-year-old Miri, thinking back to that awful winter. "And who knows what's still to come?" At its heart, this is what Blume has been writing about for more than 40 years: the traumas big and small – some chosen, others unfairly thrust upon us – that shape our lives; how we can reconcile that keen childhood sense of injustice that we all possess, no matter our age, with a world that is at times coldly capricious. This is why, despite the horror of much of its subject matter, In the Unlikely Event is comfort reading at its most soothing, the turn of its pages like sitting down with a beloved, long-lost friend.