Even in Adult Fiction, Judy Blume Never Strays Far From Adolescence

In Depth

Because Judy Blume is most celebrated for her frank depictions of burgeoning sexuality, her new book, In the Unlikely Eventa novelized tale of the circumstances in her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1951 and 1952, where three planes crashed in the span of two months—is being presented as an entirely different kind of work. But In the Unlikely Event, despite its unlikely-for-Blume premise, remains in the territory we’ve relished the author’s steps in for decades. To say the book is wholly different is to deny the threads that tie all of Blume’s work together—regardless of topic, and even of intended audience.

Blume’s books have been divided, like most authors’ books are, into books for children, books for young adults, and books for fully-grown adults. But the strength of her work is her understanding that the lines between those age groupings are blurry when it comes to our emotional states. There are children who act as adults, adults who act as children. Perhaps this is why her young adult books have been considered so revolutionary, because Blume is fluent in the transience of that stage in life: neither adult nor child, a person trapped between two worlds, struggling to figure out which one they belong in.

In the Unlikely Event is an adult novel, definitively. But, as in all of Blume’s adult novels, she actually rarely gets far from adolescence, if she does so at all. Though Blume weaves together the trauma members of one family and their friends experience during the months surrounding the plane crashes, the bulk of the book is very much focused on how, as her main character Miri learns, even when something awful happens, the rest of the world doesn’t stop:

How could they be planning a wedding? Miri wondered. Because life goes on? Maybe this was true and maybe it wasn’t. Life might go on but it didn’t go on the same way.

Blume has always written about trauma: the universal traumas of growing up. It’s nice to see Blume stretch her thematic wings a little, exploring how a loss more specific than adolescence can mess with people. (Of course it’s partially the plane crash aspect and location, but the issues she touches on bring New York City post-9/11 immediately to mind.) Miri spends the majority of the book as a teen, dealing with post-traumatic stress from her experience alongside her family and friends, who struggle with the same thing: for one, Miri’s best friend Natalie becomes convinced that a dancer who died in the crash is living inside her. As the book goes on, you see a familiar Blume theme: that the years go on even if your mental state doesn’t, and the difficulties of relationships will bother you no matter what.

Blume’s first book for adults, Wifey, came out in 1978, almost a decade after her first book was published. Though it takes place in 1970, Wifey feels almost like a novelized version of The Feminine Mystique: its main character, Sandy, is bored and unhappy in her marriage and doesn’t know why. A woman who even describes herself as juvenile, Sandy’s children are away at camp for the summer, and the extra time to herself has given her too much space to think about all the things going wrong in her life, mainly, her (mostly sexual) dissatisfaction with her wet rag of a husband, Norman:

Rules and regulations for a Norman Pressman Fuck.
The room must be dark so they do not have to look at each other. There will be one kiss, with tongue, to get things going. His fingers will pass lightly over her breasts, travel down her belly to her cunt, and stop. He will attempt to find her clitoris. If he succeeds, he will take it in between his thumb and forefinger and rub. Too hard. He will roll over on top of her. He will raise himself on his elbows, and then . . .

Sandy spends much of her time obsessing over her first love Shep, and eventually, her sexual urges take over her: she embarks upon a series of ill-fated and brief affairs. It’s an apt depiction of “the problem that has no name,” the story of a woman who was quite literally told by her mother that her sole purpose in life was to get a husband and please him, and yet can’t figure out why that doesn’t please her. “Make his interests your interests. Make his friends, your friends. When he’s in the mood, you’re in the mood. Dress to please him. Cook to please him. What else matters? A happy husband is the answer to a happy life,” her mother tells her before she gets married.

1970. Not only a New Year but a New Decade. When they returned from Jamaica Sandy was full of resolutions. She would learn to a be a gourmet cook. She would get a slinky dress. She would become an outstanding mother of the year. She would clean out all the closets and organize them. She would make sure the baseboards were as clean as Norman claimed Enid’s were. She would devour three books a week from the library and only one of them would be sexy. Yes, she would be very sexy. Always. Looking her best. Never in need of a shampoo. Shaving her legs before it was necessary. Dental floss between her teeth morning and night. Regular douches with vinegar, maybe wine vinegar for variety, and not just the morning after. She would please Norman in every way. If she made him happier, if she concentrated on his every wish, then she would be rewarded. She would become a happier person. A better person.

It’s a pretty hot book—the tagline on the edition I have reads “The National Bestseller of a very nice housewife with a very dirty mind,” and was certainly received that way when it was released—but as Wifey goes on, the book becomes less about Sandy’s sexual frustration and more about her frustration with all parts of her life. Of Norman, she ponders, “He didn’t like sleeping close so they had twin beds, attached to one headboard, a royal pain to make in the mornings, but why should she complain? Florenzia [the housekeeper] made the beds four mornings a week.” Sandy is an adult, but she’s stuck, in a way, in adolescence—she’s grown up without ever learning what she wants or how to get it.

Blume followed Wifey up five years later with Smart Women, her least famous book for adults. Smart Women focuses on Margo and B.B., two divorced women who are casual friends whose relationship becomes convoluted when B.B.’s ex-husband moves to town and starts dating Margo. Smart Women is less interesting as a book in itself than is Blume’s particular intent in writing it. As she says in the introduction to it, added in 2004:

When I began to write the book, I planned to tell the story from the adults’ viewpoint only, and although there would be kids in it, this time I wasn’t going to take their side. I hoped my daughter and son would understand. But once I got going, I fell in love with both Sara and Michelle, the daughters, respectively, of the two main characters, B.B. and Margo. I had to let them have their say. They provide the humor and poignancy in the story.

In other words, even when Blume tries to focus on adults, she can’t entirely—the allure of youth and exploring how relationships change over the passage of time is too much for her.

Blume didn’t write another adult novel until 1998, when she published Summer Sisters, the most beloved of her adult novels (it stayed on the best seller list for months the summer it came out). Summer Sisters is set up the same was as In the Unlikely Event, as Victoria (“Vix”) looks back on her relationship with her best friend Caitlin from when they meet as preteens in 1977 to when they blossom into twentysomethings in 1990. In both books, Blume has her lead character start off in the present, but then takes a trip down memory lane, setting up the novel as one large memory, nostalgia dripping with each step the book takes.

It’s not a criticism, because this style of book is what Blume does best. Fans of Blume speak rapturously about the relationship between Caitlin and Vix in Summer Sisters; everyone seems to connect to the complex pull of friends who have known you since before you were you. Within the obsessive, sometimes almost-sexual nature of Caitlin and Vix’s version of this friendship, she shows the characters lost in time, trying to pinpoint their identity, their future pressing on them as they can’t stop considering the past. As Vix sits at Caitlin’s wedding to Vix’s first love:

They say when you’re about to die your whole life passes before your eyes like a movie run in slow motion. That night, at Caitlin’s prenuptial dinner at The Black Dog, Vix feels her whole life passing before her and wonders if maybe this is it. If this is how it’s all going to end, standing in Caitlin’s shadow, celebrating her marriage to Bru.

And it’s those surfacing memories that turn adults into children again:

“Oh, please . . .” Maia said. “There’s a Caitlin in every junior high. You have to get over her and get on with your life.”
Maia and Paisley are wrong. Caitlin isn’t someone to get over. She’s someone to come to terms with, the way you have to come to terms with your parents, your siblings. You can’t deny they ever happened. You can’t deny you ever loved them, love them still, even if loving them causes you pain.

In the Unlikely Event might be Blume’s most obviously historical book, but when contextualized with her others—and again, remarkably, for audiences of all ages—you realize she’s always exploring histories, and that they’re always personal ones. Her other hallmarks, like her use of simple language, her deep character exploration, her frank discussion of sexuality, or subtle acknowledgment of issues like race or class or mental health, are there too—but they pale in comparison to her greatest strength: her understanding that truly, none of us ever grow up.

Contact the author at [email protected].

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