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Life goes on pleasantly for teen lit icon Judy Blume

Anna Coogan

There is genuine excitement surrounding Judy Blume's first novel for adults in 16 years, with The Guardian newspaper running a quiz entitled "How well do you know Judy Blume?" It posed questions about Blume's young heroes from her previous bestsellers, including "What does Michael call his penis in Blume's novel Forever?"

Forever was published in 1975 - 40 years ago - which says it all about how much attention readers paid to Blume's characters back in her publishing heyday, and when she wrote about such taboo subjects as periods, masturbation, homosexuality, and intercourse (that old-fashioned and antiseptic word for sex).

Veteran readers of Blume have come out of the woodwork in anticipation of her new novel, crediting her with getting them through puberty at a time when there was no sex education available, either in school or at home, and girls lived with the shame of their changing bodies and a mortal fear of getting pregnant.

Lena Dunham, creator of TV sensation Girls, is warm in her praise for Blume's candid writing. "She had the bravery to write about growing up in a way that wasn't vanilla and that acknowledged just how complicated being a little girl is."

"We must, we must, we must increase our bust" became one of the most popular catchphrases of 1970 and for many years afterwards, following the publication of Blume's bestseller, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.

While Tiger Eyes, a movie based on Blume's 1981 young-adult novel of the same name, starred Willa Holland as a teenager who meets a Native American youth who helps her cope after her father's senseless murder.

So you can imagine the pressure then, and no, I'm not talking about the pressure on Blume to meet the expectations of her legions of fans. But on me, the reviewer, to love the first novel in ages from an adored author who lit up what was a pretty bleak world for millions of young anxious women.

Blume was a guardian angel to a trembling generation of young women who were keen to taste sexual liberation and yet at the same time wanted to be seen as nice young girls. So to describe In The Unlikely Event as a pleasant read, and a book which I was as happy to put down as I was to pick up, seems to be an underwhelming and ungrateful response.

But as much as I willed myself to be swept away by this book - the publication of which prompted the New York Times to run a long piece entitled "What Judy Blume's Books Meant" - there were too many times when I picked it up with an air of duty and thought, "Right now, where was I?"

The times I did find myself lost in the book, it wasn't because the author - who has been described as a 'teen lit icon' because of the popularity of her best-sellers for young adults and who has sold over 80 million books - hit a nerve and pulled me in, but because of the large number of characters in this novel.

Convincing characters come naturally to Blume, and she can create them at the drop of a hat, and does.

Blume is now in her late seventies and has gone back to her adolescence for inspiration for what many anticipate will be her last book. But it isn't the repression and misguided attitudes of growing up in Elizabeth, New Jersey in the 1950s, which drives this coming-of-age tale.

A freak event occurred in Blume's hometown when she was a teenager, when three planes crashed into buildings near where she lived, between December 1951 and April 1952, and killed 118 people.

Understandably, this would be a pretty major event in the life of any teenager, so it's not surprising that Blume has revisited this time and uses it as a backdrop to explore a profound shift in thought and understanding which occurs in every young person's life.

Miri is 14 years old and the daughter of a glamorous single mother, Rusty, and best friend to the privileged Natalie who has a drawer full of cashmere sweaters. She is embarking on her first love with the endearing Mason who is an orphan.

Against this background, planes come crashing down to earth, sparking talk among alarmed teenagers of communism and aliens and a government conspiracy.

What is equally startling to Miri though, and the life lesson which knocks most of us off our feet at some point, is that in the midst of such awful tragedy, life has a habit of simply going on.

(For anyone who didn't know, Michael called his penis 'Ralph' in Forever.)

In The Unlikely event

Judy blume

Picador €25.50

Sunday Independent