Katelyn Beaty's Reviews > Ordinary People

Ordinary People by Judith Guest
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May 16, 2007

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bookshelves: coming-of-age, family-life, grief
Read in July, 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.
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