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Ordinary People

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The Jarrets are a typical American family. Calvin is a determined, successful provider and Beth an organized, efficient wife. They had two sons, Conrad and Buck, but now they have one. In this memorable, moving novel, Judith Guest takes the reader into their lives to share their misunderstandings, pain...and ultimate healing.
(back cover)

263 pages, Paperback

First published July 19, 1976

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Judith Guest

20 books309 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,297 reviews
Profile Image for Julie G.
895 reviews2,920 followers
December 1, 2018
Once, when my middle child was 7 or 8 years old, I was listening to the usual rhythm of her saying her evening prayer, when she surprised me by adding, “And Lord, please remember, when I die, I want to come back as a horse. Amen.”

I laughed out loud at her prayer, but then I immediately realized my mistake, when I saw her face. She wasn't joking. I switched gears quickly, got serious, and said, “Honey. I don't get it. Why are you asking God to bring you back as a horse?”

She answered very matter-of-factly, “Being a person is too hard. I don't want to come back as one, next time. Horses know exactly what to do and they have more fun.”

Well, how can anyone argue with THAT? She's right. A horse eats, it drinks, it sleeps, it plays, it procreates, it eliminates, it dies. The horse's trajectory is ruled by nature. It does what a horse does. The end.

But, humans. Sigh. Humans.

Humans have strayed so far from the caves, our code for being human has become lost to us. Gone are the days of “Ugga, Ugga, Ugga” and all of our problems were solved. Gone are the days of the finger point to the vagina, the penis, the fire, the meat, the water, the baby, the sky, the ground. Our fingers used to do the talking, and I bet we were a HELL of a lot happier, too. (I've pointed my finger at Viggo Mortensen's penis in an earlier review, and nothing happened. It's like all the magic's gone.)

But, I digress.

Now, depending on culture, religion, geography, and social and economic status, the code can be completely different for each person, and chances are, the human code for YOU is close to impossible anyway, and you feel as though you're failing every day.

Nobody's role is simple, these days. Not even a kid's. It used to mean minding your manners, respecting those who were bigger than you, treating each day as a surprise package, waiting to be opened. . . this is the age of perfection, kid. Everybody try their emotional and physical damndest. Strive, strive. Correct all defects.

Correct all defects. Don't show weakness.

The code for humans is so complicated now, it seems based on a pursuit of perfection we sought for ourselves, but had no realistic basis. We have holy texts that guide us to be good, but none that I'm aware of that ask us to be God.

But we ain't Divine, people. And most of us are doing a lousy job of being perfect, but an excellent job of being miserable.

And no make-up or yoga pants or juice cleanse or private college or grad school or Paleo diet or test scores or attractive spouse or clever children or 2-car garage or 4,000 square foot home or Mercedes Benz or colored hair or bank account or successful career or skinny ass or perpetual smile is ever going to make us PERFECT.

Because we're ORDINARY, people.

And as far as I'm concerned. . . the sooner we head back to the caves, the better.

I'm headed to mine right now. (I'm trading in my overpriced yoga pants for leopard skins, and Viggo M's ass better be waiting for me).

My daughter says she'll carry me on her back.
Profile Image for Colin Baldwin.
Author 1 book242 followers
July 7, 2022

I’ve just put down this book. I’ve decided not to overthink a review, but first I had to take a breath; stare out the window for a while.

My heart aches. I have a multitude of emotions, not excluding a type of joy. What a novel! Judith Guest knew what she was doing here.

But let me start off with the 1980 movie of the same name, directed by Robert Redford. I’ve watched it three times. Yes, the sets and clothing may be dated, but the story is for all-time.
This film won Oscars for best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay and best supporting actor to Timothy Hutton (back then, he was the youngest recipient at age 20), with identical Golden Globe Awards, giving Mary Tyler Moore best actress.

I was told the movie remained true to the book. And boy, it sure does. Achingly so.

Given I’m a fan of this movie, it was natural to approach the novel with all the faces and characters already formed in my mind. This can be a trap but, in this instance, it was flawless. The roles and performances of Moore and Donald Sutherland as the parents, and Hutton as Conrad, their son, aligned with what I read on the pages. The supporting cast matched all the secondary characters in the book.

Conrad. What a great name for a young man to carry such a weight on his shoulders…

This story is about an ‘ordinary’ family in the process of fracturing. Rarely do we get to read such plausible text about the awkwardness and tragedy of familial bonds that shift and waver. Of course, there are both subtle and brutal layers. Both the book and the film expertly peel off these layers at the right pace. Readers may relate to some characters more than others, but I make no judgments on behaviours. There are no rule books on how we should behave in crises, are there?

I love it when there is no hesitation to award a book 5 stars. ‘Ordinary People’ belongs to that category.

I’m now interested to know how readers found this in reverse, meaning they read the book before watching the movie. Did the characters in the book translate well on the screen?
Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,850 followers
October 9, 2012
It is one thing to read a book written by a contemporary author, set in the not-too-distant past; it is another entirely to read one written in and completely of its time. To read Ordinary People is to step through the looking glass into the sweetly familiar terrain of mid-1970s. But beneath the surface details is a book of timeless themes and incomparable elegance.

As a fan of the 1980 movie, I could hear the voices of the actors as I read the dialogue: Mary Tyler Moore's controlled high-pitched fury, Donald Sutherland's velvet sorrow, Judd Hirsch's nasal sarcasm. But Judith Guest's brilliant, unaffected writing brings life to the characters in a more personal and profound way. You become a participant, not a passive observer, in the inner lives of a family as it falls apart, slowly, wretchedly, inevitably.

I was just eleven years old when Ordinary People appeared in cinematic form in the autumn of 1980, but I remember it as a seminal cultural event of the era, hand-in-hand with Kramer vs. Kramer, released at the end of 1979. It was the year my parents divorced, my oldest brother joined the Marines, the American hostage crisis in Iran dominated the headlines, we waited hours in line at the Cinerama to see The Empire Strikes Back, Reagan took office and John Lennon was murdered - my political and socio-cultural self awakened at the start of a new decade to my formative years and to a world about to enter hyper-speed.

I can't imagine Ordinary People is still being read in high school English classes, but more's the pity. The clothing and music have changed, but the universal nature of adolescence - the sense of isolation, the discovery of love and the longing to be accepted coupled with the struggle to assert one's individuality - remains. Anyone who has suffered depression, whether as a teen or as an adult, will walk in step with Conrad Jarrett as he struggles to return from a shadow life to one with dimension and hope. And what a gift to have one's conflict and confusion validated by Guest's honest, aching, clean prose.

Profile Image for Susan's Reviews.
1,107 reviews531 followers
December 12, 2021
I saw the very excellent movie, Ordinary People, starring Donald Sutherland and my one time crush Timothy Hutton first. That movie moved me very deeply. The book was just as memorable and I have my own copies of both, and watch and reread them every once in a while.

Conrad and Buck are out sailing when their boat capsizes. Conrad is able to hang on, but Buck loses his grip and drowns. The Jarrett family is torn apart and Conrad's survivor's guilt leads him to attempt suicide. (If suicidal ideation is a trigger for you, then this is not the book for you - but I will state that this subject is very sensitively handled.) Conrad's mother, Beth, was closer to Buck, whereas the father, Calvin Jarrett, was very supportive of Conrad. Lines were drawn and heartbreaking decisions had to be made so that Conrad could get the help he so desperately needed.

Books about families in crisis are one of my favourite reads. I love psychoanalysis (Frankl is my hero - his wonderful books pulled me out of more than one crisis in my lifetime.) I highly, highly recommend both the book and the excellent movie. Stay well, everyone!
Profile Image for Fabian.
956 reviews1,623 followers
October 23, 2018

But rather interesting, is it not, how I find myself choosing below-par novels lately which have, somehow, spawned off better-than-average silver screen adaptations*! Here--the underrated work of the artist otherwise known as the screenwriter in its glory.

This is bizarrely lame--the subjects become known superficially, their problems are mundane.

Not a wise choice, people. But, apparently, vanilla can be swiftly transformed into gold (Oscar-wise).

*"Bridges of Madison County" and "Up in the Air", to mention the first that come to mind.
Profile Image for Anne-Marie.
316 reviews33 followers
January 22, 2010
Books like Ordinary People are why I read.

This is the first book I've read on the subject of depression that isn't written as a memoir, from a clinical stand point, or with the intention of "self-help". With that said, Ordinary People was the most concise version of depression I've ever seen. Judith Guest has to have had first-hand experience with depression or else she needs to get out of my head. There is so much comfort in seeing your own inexplicable emotions laid out before you page after page.

Although Conrad's depression was most likely situational, it was severe:

-sleep is no longer just a necessity, it becomes his only refuge

-the only safe place is in his bed

-using routines as a method to appear and feel normal

-constant negative self-talk

-believing that everyone hates him as much as he hates himself and using that belief to justify his isolation

- seeing a friend (who he met and then grew close to in "The Bin") after they were both discharged --> there is an awkwardness in that situation that is unhealthy

The whole dynamic of a cold, distant mother and the overly-concerned father was refreshing.

And Berger, if only everyone could have a doctor like him! Some of Berger's wisdom that really stood out for me:

"Depression is not sobbing and crying and giving vent, it is plain and simple reduction of feeling."

" . . . crazy world or maybe it's just the view we have of it, looking through a crack in the door, never being able to see the whole room, the whole picture."

"I keep telling you that feeling is not selective. You can't feel pain, you aren't gonna feel anything else either."
25 reviews2 followers
July 27, 2007
This book was first recommended to me by my high school English teacher. I had just read Lord of the Flies, and she could tell I needed something to restore my faith in humanity. This book is incredible!

It is a real, unflinchingly honest look at life and all of the horrible things that happen. It is also a reminder of the reasons that life is still worth living in spite of those horrible things.
Profile Image for Corey.
Author 84 books255 followers
July 5, 2019
A powerful story told in simple, unadorned prose. Redford, though, saw the poetry beneath the surface and made a GREAT movie from a good book.
Profile Image for Tyler  Bell.
196 reviews33 followers
December 2, 2020
3.25/5 Stars

This was just middle-of-the-road for me

I know that there is a really famous movie that was adapted back in the 80's, and even won the Best Picture Oscar. I had no idea that it was first a book. Now, I haven't watched the movie, but from review I've seen of the movie, I went into the book with higher than average hopes. Unfortunately, not all expectations were met.

I'm going to start with the good. I think that Judith Guest did an amazing job in depicting depression, happiness, loneliness, identity and blame so well in these characters. She also depicted being in a marriage that is emotionally draining for both parties involved and how that can affect people around them very well. It really seemed like these character were real, and I felt really bad for a lot of them. And then when they succeeded, I rooted for them! Guest was able to portray what emotions young adults feel as well as how full grown adults deal with their surroundings and their own emotions.

Sad to say that everything else was a bit of a let down. Firstly, there really is no plot here. The reader is essentially spectating the lives of these people the course of a year. True, they do go through much change throughout the novel, but the plot just wasn't there to drive this book faster.

I had some issues with Guest's writing. Like I said in. previously reading update, she uses words that aren't really that acceptable today. I do understand that this book was written in the 70's, but still, that point stands. I also found that Conrad's (the main character) inner voice was so scattered. I guess that makes sense, given his characteristics. But the parts where we were able to get into his mind were so hard to read, and not because of the subject matter, but because there is no punctuation. I understand what Guest was trying to do, but it just made for an annoying reading experience.

This book also took me so long to read. It's only 260 pages and written in big font. It kind of put me in a reading slump (also due to school kicking my ass).

One thing this book reminded me of was Catcher in the Rye at some scenes. Even though I think this book is better than Catcher, and I do think that Conrad is a better character than Holden, this did give me vibes of Catcher. So be warned! (Also note that Catcher is my least favourite book of all time).

Overall, this book was fine. It wasn't amazing, but it wasn't terrible either. There are some great aspects to it, but there are also negative aspects. Really want to watch the movie though!
Profile Image for Paul Gaya Ochieng Simeon Juma.
617 reviews36 followers
August 27, 2015
I picked up this book last year, and at tge time I didn't know what to expect. But from the first page of my journey with the Jarret family, it became clear that this was the kind of story that will live with me for a long time to come.

There were momentous when I would just put the book aside and think of what I would do. It's that type of book which immerses you deep into the lives of ordinary people.

This is the background, Conrad Jarret, son to Beth and Calvin Jarret, is has been diagnosed with depression and classified to be with what tbey term high risk suicidal tendencies. A boy who was onc bright, the kind they label A-student, has flanked his junior exams and has to redo the exams.

He hails from a succesful family, Calvin Jarret is a tax attorney while the mum, Beth is a succesful saleswoman. Despite tge fact that the two are in love, there are a lot of glaring differences between them.

Beth is a perfectionist who likes to see everything in order. She's firm and principled, while Calvin is a worrier who is constantly worryong about Conrad. Calvin thinks that Conrad is suffering because he is a lousy parent.

But when Conrad starts attending sessions with Dr. Berger, his life improves. He slowly starts getting his old self back. He who had once failed his papers is now passing, he who did not know how to ask a girl out, finally muscles up the courage to do it and slowly starts shaping up his social life.

Yes, all families have their own challenges. But this book encourages us to remain together despite our happenings. Thst we are not outcasts, we are ordinary people. Nothibg is meaningless, we shoul be positive. Give everybody a chance to be who they are, to make mistakes and writing them off.

A wobderful book.
Profile Image for Lisa Vegan.
2,802 reviews1,235 followers
June 28, 2007
Very psychologically astute book about a family and what happens to the parents and younger son after the older son dies in an accident. Good character development and it's well written. I really felt for the surviving son and I really liked his psychiatrist as well. (And this is one of the few times I can say that, even though I read the book first, I enjoyed the movie as well.)
Profile Image for debbicat *made of stardust*.
753 reviews113 followers
April 27, 2021
Local classics bookclub read. I would not have chosen to read this. Not my typical pleasure read. But my local classics bookclub added it and I decided to participate.

It’s a valuable read. Lots to delve into here. My favorite character was the therapist. My husband and I watched the movie 🍿 after I finished it. We both liked it. He more than me. He’s kinda a melancholy, intuitive introvert anyway. He liked its somber ness. I mostly enjoyed the actors for what they brought to the movie. So well done.
Profile Image for Aj Sterkel.
796 reviews32 followers
March 27, 2016
This is one of those quiet books that doesn’t seem like much on the surface, but there is a lot going on underneath. It’s one of those books that require some thinking to really get it.

Ordinary People alternates points-of-view between a father and a son. The father, Cal, is a successful attorney who is attempting to hold his disintegrating family together. Cal’s son, eighteen-year-old Conrad, has been dealing with depression since his brother drowned in a boating accident. Conrad’s suicide attempt and his father’s efforts to understand it put even more strain on the family. This book is a modern classic that was first published in 1976.

I can see why this book is a classic and why people love it. It has one of the most relatable portrayals of depression and perfectionism that I’ve ever come across. It was frighteningly easy to see my teenage self in Conrad. A lot of his thoughts were my thoughts when I was eighteen.

“Depression is not sobbing and crying and giving vent, it is plain and simple reduction of feeling.”

“Because it has always been easier to believe himself capable of evil than to accept evil in others.”

I’m very happy with the way that the author handled Conrad’s character. He’s depressed, but there’s more to him than just his depression. He has a wonderful sense of humor. He cares about people. He sets goals for himself and works hard to achieve them. He actually feels like a real person and not just a stereotype of a depressed teen. I also appreciate that his father takes an interest in his life and makes an effort to understand him.

Conrad is an interesting character, but I wish I could say that about the other characters in the book. This is a short novel with a lot of minor characters. There were a few times when I struggled to remember who was who. I wanted many of the characters, especially Conrad’s mother, to be more complex. Sometimes his mother comes across as an uncaring witch, and I don’t think her character is that simple.

The writing style also caused a few issues for me. The book is written stream-of-consciousness style. Some sections have very little punctuation. This isn’t my favorite writing style because it slows down my reading. Also, since the reader is so deep inside the characters’ minds, the style becomes a bit maudlin at times. There are a few places where I remember thinking, Okay, you’re upset. You’re suffering. You’re in pain. I get it. Talk about something else now.

Despite those issues, I really liked Ordinary People. I know that I will reread it in the future. I have a feeling that it’s one of those books that get better with rereading. There are probably a lot of subtle things that I missed on the first read. And, I need to track down a copy of the movie. Everyone has been telling me that it’s amazing.
Profile Image for Norah Una Sumner.
855 reviews452 followers
February 9, 2016
“Life is not a series of pathetic, meaningles actions. Some of them are so far from pathetic, so far from meaningless as to be beyond reason, maybe beyond forgiveness.��

This is a wonderful book about loss,family,forgiveness,depression and life.Judith Guest's writing style was very surprising to me at the beginning because she narrates in present tense(very risky!).But the more you read the more you get attached to Cal and Conrad and the more you want them to make everything work and be happy.I liked them both very much,but I also like Jeannine and Berger.Beth,however,is a mystery to me...I didn't like her but I did hoped that she and Cal would overcome their issues.Apart from that,I am very satisfied with the ending and the fact that Conrad went to see Lazenby in the end.I was hoping through the whole book that they would become friends again(not that they ever stopped being friends,but you know what I mean.)

Favourite quotes:


“Feelings are scary, and sometimes they’re painful. But if you can’t feel pain then there’s no way you’ll feel anything else either. You’re here and you’re alive, and don’t tell me you don’t feel that.It is good, believe me.”

Depression is not sobbing and crying and giving vent, it is plain and simple reduction of feeling.People who keep stiff upper lips find that it’s damn hard to smile..”
Profile Image for Anna Kay.
1,334 reviews152 followers
May 3, 2015
Review also posted @Diamond&Coal Book Reviews

A lot of people are depressed by this book. I am not one of them and every time I re-read it (so far about six times!) it uplifts me and reminds me that nothing is ever quite so bad as I think it may be. This book is about the Jarret family, Mom and Dad with their two sons. When we meet them they only have one son left, Conrad, the younger son who has recently been released from a sanitarium after attempting suicide. The book is mostly from Conrad's point of view, with some glimpses into his Father, Calvin's head. The entire family is dealing with the loss of Con's brother Buck, but instead of bringing them together it's tearing them apart. His Mother, Beth, is using every excuse to escape the situation with constant vacations and denial that anything is wrong. One scene in particular at a friend's party, where Cal is slightly drunk and discusses Con's therapy, really makes her angry. You don't share personal business with anyone but family, and even then you NEVER talk about it - that's her life motto. Without perfection in her life anymore, Beth has no clue who to blame. She becomes withdrawn and harsh when Cal tries to show any interest in Conrad, who is trying to piece his life back together in a way that makes him happy. Which isn't necessarily the way his Mom wants things. Maybe Cal isn't as happy as he always thought either. When he begins looking past the face value of the things in his life, the situation finally combusts.

I loved this book. It's an honest and hard look at the consequences of real-life tragedies and how they change people forever. The family dynamic is extremely interesting, with Cal being the slightly hovering, interested parent and Beth seeming like she wishes Conrad would just disappear. Conrad himself is messed up and after living his whole life in a house that kept repression and perfection as rulers (*cough* *Beth* *cough*) this is really the first time he has ever dealt with his emotions in an honest way. As he works through the guilt, sadness and anger of Buck's death, as well as his twisted relationship with his Mom, we see him grow as a person and learn to let himself be happy. Cal's transformation from clueless, middle-aged lawyer with the perfect wife and good son also is something to see. He really starts to take off the rose colored glasses and feel what's going on in his life. Dr. Berger, the not-so-crazy therapist that Con (and, later on, Cal) go to see is what makes the book in my opinion. His obvious contentment with life and it's ups/downs is the opposite of Cal and Con but it balances them out. The ending of this book, reconnecting with the old while moving on with the new is beautiful. One of my favorite books that I've read since becoming an adult. Super glad that when I was nineteen the cover and synopsis intrigued me. Overall and extremely well written novel, a character piece that is in the style of The Virgin Suicides or White Oleander. It is something special that only comes around every so often. I highly encourage anyone who hasn't read it to give it a shot! You won't regret it! :)

VERDICT: 5/5 Stars

**No money or favors were exchanged for this review. This book is now available in stores, online, or maybe even at your local library.**
Profile Image for Susan Stuber.
200 reviews112 followers
December 15, 2019
I read this book probably 40 years ago, and its story still haunts me. I would need a re-read to rate the prose, etc., but as far as impact goes, this book has it.
Profile Image for J.G. Keely.
546 reviews10.2k followers
June 30, 2007
This book, for me, represents the pinnacle of a 'literary' book that captures real life so effectively that it is entirely banal. Granted, making something both realistic and interesting is one of the greatest challenges any author faces. Whether through dialogue, plot structure, or motivation, it is always more difficult to write a book that seems at once 'real', but does not fall into the 'truth is stranger than fiction' valley of attempted realism.

Modern authors of this vein (i.e. Salinger) become more an act of dadaist 'difference for difference's sake' than any actually sort of conceptual exploration. And as has been noted many times, simply acting differently does not make one a revolutionary. Oft times, it's just a sign of self-centered contrariness.
Profile Image for Jim Dooley.
810 reviews41 followers
November 30, 2020
I have a strange admission to make. My review would have been higher had I not first seen the motion picture, “Ordinary People.” That was a profound viewing experience for me, and I’ve enjoyed the film about five times through the years. There are a number of things that I thought the film did better than what was found in the book. And, indeed, two film moments that had a very strong emotional impact for me ... “Let’s have the best Christmas ever” and “What did it matter what I wore that day?” do not appear in the novel.

Still, the novel is a powerful one. For me, it is impossible not to read it and avoid thinking about what discords are happening in the lives of the Ordinary People who live in my neighborhood. The writer demonstrates that neighborhoods have their unwritten rules, and these rules often keep us from being there for one another.

Of course, the Jarret family is not quite Ordinary. A boating accident cost the life of one son, and the surviving son is recovering from a hospital stay following a suicide attempt. Yet, even under such extreme circumstances, it is important not to “stand out” too much among others.

Because they don’t openly discuss their problems and concerns, the members of the Jarret family are consigned to a living Hell of their own internal beliefs. A glow of relief is found in Dr. Berger, a psychiatrist who has been recommended to help the son. However, the way forward is made more difficult when the family members are so out of step with one another.

ORDINARY PEOPLE’s special strength is in giving the Reader a constant comparison point. Is it normal to feel the way you do? Why is it so difficult to genuinely relate to others? What perceived “rules” are getting in the way of allowing us to find a sense that we’re doing okay? The novel doesn’t give specific recommendations, yet there are many examples that could translate as being lessons.

For fans of the movie, there isn’t a lot of additional background provided. There is an Epilogue that flushes out a bit more details. If there is a desire for deeper character background, the movie’s screenplay pretty much covered it all except for small additions.

If you plan to read ORDINARY PEOPLE, my suggestion would be to do so before seeing the movie. Later, let the movie use its visuals and performances to provide another layer of subtle depth. There are worthwhile reasons to pursue both, but seeing the movie first may set expectations that are beyond what the novel was trying to accomplish.
Profile Image for Katelyn Beaty.
Author 9 books377 followers
July 8, 2007
Judith Guest's Ordinary People explores a topic so familiar to us that I'm not sure she succeeds at breaking any molds. But due to my ignorance, perhaps she's one of the writers who set the mold in the first place. If this is true, then we have Guest to thank for telling the story of the private grief of three members of one family, all trying to deal with the loss of another member in disparate ways. So disparate is their grief that it drives the members apart from one another, instead of bringing them together when they need each other most.
Ordinary People is primarily told from the viewpoint of Conrad, an awkward and reserved teenager trying to cope with the loss of his older brother. Though not many details are given, we gather that Conrad's isolation and guilt is severe enough to land him in rehabilitation to keep from attempting suicide. His father, Cal, a naively easygoing accountant, is terribly concerned about his son and makes earnest attempts to "reach out," though he ends up stifling Conrad more than freeing him. The mother, Beth, is one of those characters you have both compassion and hatred toward. So private and complex is her grief that she copes by taking a limitless number of holidays and vacations, all the while blaming her family for "changing" and becoming so "somber."
Guest's prose is simple, based internally on the characters' private emotions, and captures well the ethos of upper middle class suburbia, which tends to create a climate where grief is failure, and there's nothing a few rounds of golf at the country club won't alleviate. While the themes are a bit cliched, we also need these stories, to remind us of the depths of human fragility, brokenness, and deep longing for connection.
Profile Image for SheriC.
682 reviews34 followers
November 22, 2017
I wish I had the skill to truly analyze what makes the difference between a book where the author tries to manipulate the reader’s emotions and only gets an “hmm how sad” from me, or worse, eyerolls, and a book that has me glued to the pages and leaking tears. All I know is that this is one of the latter.

In spite of a story that is almost all character, with almost all events taking place within those characters’ thoughts and emotions and in their interactions with one another, and in spite of a present-tense, stream of consciousness writing style that might have annoyed me in another author’s hands, this story of a family fragmenting and reforming in the aftermath of tragedy absorbed me completely and wrung my emotions inside out. It’s been a while since I had a good cry over a book, and it was deeply satisfying.

Vintage paperback, picked up from my public library’s gimme shelves, where they make unusable donated books and culled books available to the public in return for a suggested monetary donation.

I read this for The 16 Tasks of the Festive Season, square 4: Book themes for Penance Day: Read a book that has a monk, nun, pastor / preacher or priest as a protagonist, or where someone is struggling with feelings of guilt or with their conscience (regardless over what). In this book, members of a family are struggling with their sense of guilt or failed responsibility in the aftermath of tragedy
Profile Image for Max Kelly.
62 reviews1 follower
January 25, 2023
This book has, without a doubt, become one of my favorites. I genuinely don’t think I could come up with a criticism if I tried.

Let me preface, this book will not be everyone’s cup of tea. It will be potentially, and unsurprisingly, ordinary to some. I am personally someone who finds such beauty in the mundane, and Judith Guest couldn’t have written to me more perfectly. Additionally, there are themes of self-harm and suicide. Know what you’re getting into here.

Throughout the novel, I couldn’t help but think of Carson McCullers’ ‘The Heart is a Lonely Hunter’ and all that I hoped and wished for from that novel. THIALH is described as “an important lamentation of the loneliness, isolation, and hopelessness that characterized so many American lives in the war-ravaged 20th century,” I wanted more out of it than I got. ‘Ordinary People,’ on the other hand, was what I had initially wanted from McCullers.

I think that at its core, ‘Ordinary People’ succeeds where THIALH fell short (for me at least) because of the singularity of the Jarett family’s experiences. Although the story is only focused on this one family, there is the juxtaposition of both Conrad and Cal, two unique and individual characters and perspectives telling the same story through two very different lenses. I don’t think I can emphasize how important that was in my experience of this novel. We are not jumping between 4 different characters, each with their own subplots, and Guest provides us with such intimacy.

In exploring the somewhat mundane lives of the Jarett‘s, the experience is heightened by the near poetic writing and introspections of Guest. It was never necessarily what was happening, but how these happenings impacted, changed, and shaped Conrad, Cal, and their family.

This book beautifully paralleled, both of the men’s experiences. As we became more familiar with both Conrad and Cal, we also experienced the real-time implications that their actions had on both each other and their home life.

This novel is incredibly relatable, while simultaneously inspiring both empathy and heartbreak throughout. Placing both the highs and lows of these ‘ordinary people’ in the same room (like with Dr. Berger *therapist pun intended*) there is a dialogue that is constructed by the reader. Not only are we intimately familiar and connected with the Jaretts, but our own lives are placed center stage as well.

Additionally, (and my favorite think-piece) this novel was written by a woman. I find it very hard to ignore the glaring reality that the novel focuses on the perspectives of two men specifically. We never explore the reality or lived experiences of Beth. I am so interested to dig deeper into the intentionality of this. And she writes them both flawlessly?? Wow is all I have to say.

Genuinely one of the most meaningful and important books I’ve read in a while, and I will take so much of it with me moving forward.
Profile Image for Carrie (brightbeautifulthings).
837 reviews30 followers
April 25, 2023
The Jarrets are a typical upper-middle class family living in Lake Forest, Illinois. Cal is a tax attorney and the provider for his family, Beth the organized, efficient housewife. They have one son, Conrad, although they used to have two. Ordinary People presents a family isolated by grief and learning to find their way through it. The following triggers play major roles in the plot/themes of the novel and are discussed at length in the narrative and the following review. Trigger warnings: child/sibling death, suicide attempt (graphic), suicidal ideation, drowning, violence, blood, depression, grief, guilt, self-loathing.

I read this for the first time in high school, and like most assigned reading back then, I adored it while everyone else hated it. After nearly fifty years since it’s been published, there are certainly books out there that handle suicide, depression, therapy, and grief better than this one (I’ve even read some of them), but Ordinary People was the first book I ever read that talked directly about those issues. I’ve never forgotten it or the way it attempts to both bring attention to and normalize them–it’s right there in the title. These are ordinary people, struggling with things that could and do happen to anyone. Occasionally, it can come over a bit dated, but on the whole I think it’s survived time really well. It’s not hard to picture the Jarret family in any decade.

I’ve read this so many times that Guest’s writing is like slipping on a comfortable sweater. I enjoy the way the narrative slowly uncovers the history of the Jarret family, how they got the way they are, and why they think and behave the way they do. The relationships are complicated and interesting, particularly among the three family members: Conrad, the teenage son, Cal, the father, and Beth, the mother. Their relationships with Buck, the older son who is no longer there, also play a major role in the story.

The narrative switches between Con and Cal (which I think was a mistake, making their names so similar; even being familiar with this story, I mixed them up a few times). As a teenager, I found it easy to relate to Con and the pressure of simply getting through a normal day. His arc in the story is arguably the best as we watch him work through school, home, and therapy in the wake of a suicide attempt. Guest makes no attempt to gloss over the grim reality of those issues, the fact that they may be lifelong struggles, or that they often don’t end in recovery. There is a slight privilege issue, given that Con comes from a upper-middle class suburban family that can afford treatment.

I thought I would find myself relating more to Cal as an adult, but the character I actually sympathized with more on this read was Beth. We don’t have the benefit of her perspective (for good reason– she’s as isolated from the reader as she is from her family) and she acts quite selfishly, but I could better see the way grief divides her from her husband and son. Sometimes, the only person you can save is yourself. I cry every time I read it because it’s so personal and so human, but it’s ultimately a book I reach for when I need to be reminded that there’s hope at the end of grief. Anyone who has ever been through something similar will see something of themselves in it.

I review regularly at brightbeautifulthings.tumblr.com.
Profile Image for Christopher Saunders.
931 reviews860 followers
August 26, 2023
Judith Guest's Ordinary People is a moving drama about a middle class family coming to terms with the loss of a family member. Conrad is a teenager who spent his life in the shadow of his older brother Buck, until Buck died in a boating accident that Conrad blames on himself. After a suicide attempt and spell in a hospital, Conrad tries to rebuild an "ordinary" life at home and school, but finds himself unable to readjust. His teachers and classmates treat him like a freak, he no longer enjoys swimming or hanging out with his jock friends, and he retreats back into a self-imposed shell. His father Cal, a genial attorney, tries to reach out to him with forced kindness; his mother Beth, who favored Buck, responds with cold detachment, wishing that Conrad could simply snap out of it. Guest's book is simple in conception, but deeply felt in its particulars: Conrad's struggles with intrusive thoughts, a sense that he's not worthy of friendship and that he's to blame for everyone's standoffish attitude towards him, are heartrending and relatable to anyone who's suffered from severe depression. The book provides him a lifeline with Dr. Berger, an uncommonly empathetic therapist, and a furtive romance with classmate Jeannine, who finds his plight sympathetic rather than distasteful. His story's paralleled with the preoccupations of his parents: Cal wants to help his son but can't find the appropriate balance between authority figure and confidante; Beth tries to will their fractured family back to the status quo, an approach which is recognizable as it is futile. Guest's narrative doesn't entirely avert cliché or melodrama (a subplot with one of Conrad's fellow hospital patients has a predictable resolution) but in general is a careful, measured and moving portrait of how tragedy, stress and mutual misunderstanding can effect the most "ordinary" of families. Adapted into an award-winning film by Robert Redford, starring Timothy Hutton, Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland.
Profile Image for Kitty Jay.
333 reviews21 followers
December 28, 2014
A deeply moving, thoughtful book, Ordinary People takes a brutally close look at the dynamics of a family coping with the loss of a child. Conrad, the surviving child, struggles with his own guilt and pain by attempting suicide and has just been released from a mental hospital. Calvin, the father, feels as if he has let down both his sons and suddenly feels uncertain, reeling from the fact that he could not protect his own family. Finally, there is Beth, the mother, who comes across as cold and aloof to even her own family, and struggles with finding out that not everything in the world can be perfect and controlled.

Richly drawn, each of the characters feels real and three-dimensional. Conrad is by turns a normal, sarcastic teenager, a kid wracked with guilt over his brother's death, and a little boy who doesn't know where to go from here. His grief can be heartbreaking to read, but his desperate attempts to hide it are even more so.

The true stand-out, however, is the mother. Beth is a mystery. While Guest often allows us into Cal's and Conrad's minds, we never see Beth's thoughts, only the perceptions filtered through others' eyes. Much of what she does is up to interpretation: is she truly cold and emotionally unavailable? Or is she simply coping with her loss by trying to ignore it?

If you have ever seen the equally astounding film directed by Robert Redford and starring Timothy Hutton, then you'll find that the screenplay was remarkably faithful to the book; however, I would argue that the book has slightly more nuances with regard to Beth's character.

I am not normally a fan of dramas, but this is one of the most engrossing, oftentimes painful, books I have ever read.
Profile Image for Susan.
134 reviews21 followers
April 26, 2022
Quite a good read. I love psychology and the concept of the ugly layers hidden beneath the “perfect family”, and it’s very well done. The dialogue was natural and realistic. That’s a frequent quibble of mine with books, they can have a fabulous plot and great observations but I can’t stand clunky, cheesy dialogue. My only issue with this book is very small, but it’s confusion. Frequently a chapter would start with “He gathered his things and got into his car..” or some such, and it would take me a page or two to figure out if the “he” was the father or the son, so it could be a little annoying. I would’ve liked some of Beth’s perspective as well, but I’m guessing that not offering her point of view was intentional, as she is seen as cold and impenetrable throughout. The work is really masterful in how it gives you some, but not all of, the answers. I watched the movie after reading and it is wonderful as well. Young Timothy Hutton gives an incredible performance. The combo would be great book club material.
Profile Image for Abigail.
14 reviews
September 20, 2008
For the first couple chapters of this book, I was rather confused and repelled by Guest's writing style. The EXTREME stream of consciousness is rather intrusive to first-time readers. Conrad and Calvin's struggles, though revealed at painstakingly slow rates, made me have to read more and more and more. When the true conflict is actually revealed, there was a new appreciation for the writing style. All I wanted was to get MORE into the characters' heads! By the end of the book, I not only felt kindred to Con and Cal, I felt connected to them. The ending, though somewhat wanting, left me wanting to read it again just so I could revisit the characters.

I do warn prospective readers of questionable content though, language and specific scenes create a very dark tone. One must keep in mind the horrible, horrible struggles the characters are going through.
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