In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume
Knopf, June 2015
I borrowed the book from the library.
Some authors have earned such a tremendous amount of goodwill from me, I’m willing to try their new books even after a long gap. (But I’m not sure that I’m ready to read Go Set A Watchman.) I’m fairly certain I’ve read almost every Judy Blume novel since I was 9 or 10, and while I don’t remember her adult novels so clearly, her books for kids are super-memorable.
In the Unlikely Event is a story sort of based on Judy Blume’s life: she grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in the flight-path of Newark International Airport, in the 1950’s during the time of a major plane crash. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say as much because the cover is pretty on-the-nose.
Blume’s stand-in is Miri, a teenager living with her single mother and her grandmother in the apartment downstairs. There’s a large cast of characters surrounding Miri: her friends, her family, and several other people in Elizabeth, so there are stories about the plane crash from many perspectives. It’s a coming-of-age story with the background of dealing with a horrible plane crash in her neighborhood, and Blume’s strength is in creating realistic characters. Some aren’t totally fleshed out because her focus is on a teenage girl who doesn’t know everything about older people’s lives, but that’s not a problem with the story.
I really liked this book: I could tell that it was a story that wasn’t just dashed off, and it didn’t tell stories about a tragedy just for the sake of drama.
I’m counting this as my entry for New Jersey for the USA Fiction Challenge. It’s a reading challenge I’ve been neglecting this year, but I hope to make more progress before the end of the year.
An Available Man is my favorite kind of novel, and it’s my favorite novel I’ve read this year so far as well: it’s a comedy of manners, it’s very astute about its characters and their interior lives, and it’s beautifully written.
The titular available man is Edward Schuyler, a recently widowed biology teacher in his early sixties. His stepchildren and step-daughter-in-law place a personal ad for him inthe New York Review of Books, and this book follows his adventures and misadventures in the dating world of a sixty-something man. The story moves between suburban New Jersey and New York City (his home and work bases), and it covers the first three years of life without his beloved wife Bea.
The story draws you in from the beginning because it begins with Edward alone and remembering Bea’s struggle with pancreatic cancer as well as their relationship. You also feel sorry for him because he was left at the altar by his first serious partner, Laurel. Wolitzer also draws you in with the details that make the characters feel very vivid: Edward buries the letters responding to the personal ad in the kitchen’s crazy drawer, which is just how this character would describe what I would call a junk drawer. He’s too buttoned-up to call it a junk drawer.
There are several delicious set pieces in the story as well: Edward at his first dinner party as a widower and Edward’s semi-disastrous dates with women who responded to his personal ad. Wolitzer has a sense of humor. None of the characters, including the women he meets along the way, are caricatures or flat: Wolitzer clearly has affection for all of her characters ,including his needy stepdaughter Julie, Edward’s mother-in-law Gladys, and even the dogwalker Mildred who’s interested in the occult. The family life feels real, and the places Edward inhabits feel real.
This is a story about grief, this is a story about the dating lives of widows and widowers, and this is a portrait of marriage. Nothing is easy for these set of characters, but they are interesting and are striving to become more alive, which makes for an interesting read.
An Available Man by Hilma Wolitzer
Publication date:January 24, 2012
Source: Publisher via NetGalley