“Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”
“Anyway, you’re right about the first paragraph. I want someone to project it on the front of my house in giant letters made of light and shadows. And if they flickered a bit, that would be the best. And of course they’d disappear in the sunshine because everything does. And that would be perfect.”
All My Puny Sorrows, p. 313
By Miriam Toews
Savers Thrift Store in Berkeley has an ugly, disorganized corner on the second floor lovingly reserved for books. Besides indisputable crap, there are far more classics than anything else, which is a bit alarming, as these are the books that people are ridding of their lives. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert marked the first time I read a book and thought, I like this more than anything I’ve ever read. It is forevermore in the canon of my all-time favorites, which entails buying any and all editions that I come across. This particular one cost me just 50 cents, thanks to the cashier who picked it up, shrugged, and charged me for a children’s book.
An introductory note from the publisher ends this way: “All Flaubert’s scorn for conventional society, its lack of intelligence and insensitivity to beauty, are embodied in his greatest novel, Madame Bovary.” Scorn and society are frequent costars, but Madame Bovary’s very own intelligence and beauty inspires a new kind of understanding, one focused on a woman who suffocates within the confines of conservative society. It is a dense classic better left read, like I imagine all of them are. Until the next re-read, may it sit on my bookshelf as a reminder to read the countless classics I have yet to read, because any one of them may be the next addition to the list of perennial favorites.
I finished In the Unlikely Event the day after I attended Judy Blume’s talk at the Bay Area Book Festival, which was over a week ago. I cannot help but think that how positively I feel about a book correlates with how inspired, rather how rushed, I feel to sit down and reflect on it. In the final quarter of this book, far more bombshells go off than I ever suspected. While most of the book progresses naturally if not slowly, its final pages are inexplicably heavy with new drama. By then, I found myself a bit tired of Miri Ammerman and company.
Sitting down to Judy Blume, I felt time tick backwards a few decades. The name dropping included R.L. Stine and Francine Pascal, and when Blume referred to an old interview, she noted that it could be watched on AOL. She did discuss one of the main ideas of the book; is an event like three planes crashing into the same city within two months sheer coincidence, or something else? How do average people interpret unlikely events that do indeed happen? Even the most rational of us try to connect the dots, to create some kind of meaning. In the book, Blume appears to credit coincidence, but during the talk she said that after recently returning to the crash sites, she has begun to believe otherwise.
Before In the Unlikely Event, my most recent encounter with Judy Blume was in Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year. In her memoir, Rakoff writes of working at Harold Ober Associates, a literary agency that in its heyday represented the likes of J.D. Salinger and Judy Blume:
“As she crossed the threshold into my domain, something caught her eye and she retreated back into the corner, crouching down in front of the obscure bookcase where I’d found Judy Blume’s books. Oh no, I thought, as a frown arranged itself on the woman’s face. No. No, that can’t be her. She didn’t look at all the way I’d pictured Judy Blume. How had I pictured her? More plump and smiley? I wasn’t sure. Regardless, this had to be her” (p. 118).
We learn that Blume soon leaves the agency because its president does not believe her latest book will sell, a book for adults. We know how that story ends. In the Unlikely Event is Blume’s fourth novel for adults, though I do not plan to explore its predecessors anytime soon. Instead, I hear another Miriam Toews calling my name.
In the Unlikely Event takes place in Judy Blume’s hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey, where in the early 1950s three planes crashed into the city within two months, killing scores of people. I have read far enough to take in two of those deadly crashes, and I cringe to think that there is another one remaining. Heartbreak and fear take over the city, but Blume beautifully intertwines the lives of those affected, and tells a sweeping, detailed story of middle America in the 1950s.
The sheer number of characters is breathtaking. Tucked into the pages of my book is a piece of paper on which I continuously scribble down newly introduced characters, drawing lines to indicate relationships and writing things like “cousins,” “housekeeper,” and “dating” in parentheses. One may begin to suspect an almost insistence on squeezing as many names into as few pages as possible. Though bewildering, it reflects the blur of people in the everyday of our own lives, and also demonstrates the far-reaching impact of tragedy; countless people in countless ways.
I am moving through the book quickly, a reflection of its narrative ease, and also of how much I am thoroughly enjoying myself. And that makes me pause. Books like this force my prejudice to surface – for which I blame the lingering effects of AP English – that reading is supposed to be challenging and intensive. It is a wonderful reminder that a good book does not necessarily mean a difficult book, and that there is value in taking pleasure in stellar storytelling. I will be attending A Very Special Evening with the Remarkable Judy Blume on Saturday as part of the Bay Area Book Festival, and with the drama of 1950s Elizabeth swirling in my mind, I am eager to hear from its famous raconteuse.