Monday, September 21, 2015

In the Unlikely Event....

.....that you think beloved author Judy Blume should be writing novels for adults, let me disabuse you of that belief right now. Yes, she changed our lives and the lives of our kids with her wonderfully open, conversation-starting books for teens. How else would I have been able to explain masturbation to my pre-teen stepdaughters?

Maybe I won't be popular for saying this but the much heralded adult novel, "In the Unlikely Event," is written in a style I found more appropriate for teens. I really wanted to like this book. The premise offers a great opportunity for a writer to explore the interior lives of children suffering from post traumatic stress disorder after three unthinkable tragedies rained down on the residents of Elizabeth, New Jersey. Ms. Blume, I'm afraid, missed that chance.

Now let me qualify my remarks. There are positives I can play up. First of all, the historical nature of the material, the plane crashes in 1951 and '52, actually happened. Beginning each section of the book with imagined clips from "The Elizabeth Daily Post," adds immediacy to the narrative and allows Blume to introduce the journalist, Henry Ammerman, to the readers.

Second, Blume has a remarkable memory or a great researcher. The small details, saddle shoes, fuzzy earmuffs, Toni home perms, that she includes in the novel, will resonate with readers of a certain age. And those who grew up in New Jersey and its environs (I'm talking to you Maryellen Woodside) will thoroughly enjoy the nostalgic trip down memory lane.

But I found little character development. Each person in this book feels like a cardboard cut out, or in deference to the fifties theme, a paper doll. Miri, her best friend Natalie, their parents and siblings, are sadly one-dimensional. Each of them, we are told, is profoundly changed by the death and destruction they witnessed when first the C-46 crashed into the Elizabeth river and, not long after, the American Airlines Convair barely missed the high school full of students before taking out an apartment building.

One of the basics of writing class says "show, don't tell." Natalie becomes ill, her parents' perfect marriage disintegrates, a devastated widower finds new life through Miri's wonderful grandmother, Irene. Miri channels her anger into journalism, encouraged by her uncle Henry. But I never felt an emotional connection to these characters as I might have in a more subtle writer's hand.

Have you read it? Do you disagree with me? Tell me what you thought. I'd love to get a conversation going. I'm packing for a little mini-vacation to Williamsburg and taking along Elena Ferrante and the hot new "City on Fire." Will report upon my return. Happy reading.

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