JUDY BLUME still kicks ass. Like a YA samurai, this is her way. Her first adult novel since 1998's Summer Sisters is out this week, and—bold words—it's her best work for grownups yet. As an influential author who's spent nearly 80 years being an amazing human on this planet, I'm sure glad her latest is for adults. We need her more right now—those kids can feed on our previously discovered riches.
Blume dives deep into autobiographical waters in In the Unlikely Event, which takes place in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in the winter of 1951-1952, when Blume was in eighth grade, and when three plane crashes happened in quick succession. While the characters in Unlikely Event are fictional, Elizabeth very much feels like a re-creation of Blume's childhood home: Long-forgotten buildings are described in detail, as are all the relics of 1950s life, from diaphragms to Novas with their bed-like backseats to velvet cocktail dresses.
In fact, Unlikely Event has all of Blume's trademark porn. Get your mind out of the gutter—I mean her loving fetishism of everyday items, home-cooked meals, and cataloging of wardrobes: Lanz nightgowns, nylon tricot half-slips, and white angora mittens with leather palms. And yes, let's go back to the gutter: There are the sexy bits, too. (Go ahead and dog-ear page 226, so every tween can turn straight there as a rite of passage.)
Besides all those little touches you remember from Blume's vast catalog, Unlikely Event is full of truths that very few adults offer when it comes to children. "Were adults ever honest with kids?" 15-year-old protagonist Miri Ammerman wonders. "They lived in a world where children, even teenagers, were protected from the truth for their own good." Blume is honest. She shows Miri navigating relationships with her single mother, best friend, first boyfriend, and deadbeat dad—all while three planes rain down from nearby Newark Airport within a span of 58 days. As the story jumps perspectives in Miri's social circle, the fears of the era come into sharp relief. The town has watched as crash casualties have piled up—"bodies, still strapped into their seats, hanging from trees like puppets in some kind of sick show." High school kids allay their anxiety with tales of aliens, commies, and zombies. It's easy to see the sea change of the 1960s on the horizon: the perfect veneer of the '50s is wearing thin with its attendant divorces, anorexia, teen sex, and impending catastrophe.
Blume's novel is an open and emotional story of how that must have felt at the time, which she seasons with portraits of the complications of being an adult and the even more Byzantine inner lives of 15-year-olds. This may be one of Blume's "adult" novels, but its core will ring especially loud for teenagers, while the heart-aching span of lives lived will make wet stuff leak out of faces of every age. Even after all these years, Blume's still saying things not many adults can bring themselves to say.