The opening lines of In the Unlikely Event take place in 1987, with an unnamed character experiencing great anxiety as she ponders whether or not to board a flight to Newark, NJ. She is suffering the angst of belonging to a very special secret club of members joined by a tragic winter long ago.
Flash back to December 1951, to a small New Jersey town called Elizabeth. Christmas lights are out and there is gaiety in the air. It won’t be long, though, before everything changes for the residents of this picturesque town.
The first plane crash comes only days later, with everyone aboard dead. It landed in a riverbed, so the damage below was negligible.
The residents of the town haven’t even recovered when, in January 1952, the second crash occurs. And a month later, another one.
Henry Ammerman is a journalist covering the story for the local newspaper, and he finds a measure of fame through his provocative columns, as he probes the questions that plague them all. What is happening? Are the crashes coincidental, or is there some kind of sabotage behind them? Some blame “the Communists,” while the teenagers mention aliens.
As the story unfolds, we meet numerous characters, some seemingly random and their presence in the tale becomes readily apparent, as they connect in some way to the plane crashes. Like Ruby Granik, a young dancer and a victim; or Kathy Stein, who has been dating Steve Osner, a resident of Elizabeth, also dead in one of the crashes.
Miri Ammerman, the daughter of single mom Rusty and niece of Henry, is fifteen, and her life is shaken by these happenings, just as the life of her best friend Natalie Osner takes a strange turn. Has Natalie been “taken over” by the deceased spirit of one of the victims?
Even as I loved certain aspects of this novel, the numerous characters, most mentioned only once or twice, were confusing and distracting. I would have loved to dig more deeply into the lives of the primary characters, like what has Rusty been feeling all these years, raising Miri alone, with no help from the father? And when he does appear, why is she so reluctant to let him help? How do the core characters deal with the aftermath of these events?
Then, almost abruptly, we flash forward to 1987, with Miri returning to Elizabeth for a memorial of that strange year. And in a quick summarizing of events, we are caught up on what has transpired in the lives of those residents, another reminder of how much I would have enjoyed the story with more depth and a focus on the core characters. An engaging novel, however. 4 stars.