Ordinary People Summary

Judith Guest

Ordinary People

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Ordinary People Summary

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Ordinary People (1976), a novel by American author Judith Guest, follows a year in the life of the Jarretts, a well-off suburban family trying to put their lives back together in the aftermath of a pair of traumatic events that left one son dead and the other despondent and suicidal. The narrative is told by alternating between the perspectives of the family patriarch, Calvin and surviving son, Conrad. Exploring themes of grief, guilt, identity, isolation, friendship, and what truly binds a family together, Ordinary People was critically acclaimed and remains a popular read that is frequently assigned in high school English classes. However, it is best known for its 1980 film adaptation, directed by Robert Redford and starring Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, and Timothy Hutton. It was considered one of the best films of the year and won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Ordinary People begins by focusing on the Jarrett family, a well-to-do suburban clan consisting of a mother, father, and two sons. For years, they have seemed the perfect American family, but that facade starts to dissolve with the death of their older son, Buck, in a boating accident the previous year. The younger son, Conrad, is sixteen when he attempts to kill himself by cutting his wrists in guilt over his role in his brother’s death. His father, Calvin, finds him in time to call for help; Conrad’s parents commit him to a mental hospital in the hope it will help him work through his issues. The narrative begins shortly after Conrad returns home from the hospital and struggles to fit back into his life. He has missed a year of school and has fallen behind his friends. He is unmotivated to try to get back on the swim team, where he was previously a star. Despite encouragement from his parents and the coach, he decides to walk away from his former passion. Although Conrad’s father pays a lot of attention to him, his mother Beth is cold and critical, only addressing him to criticize him. It is clear in this segment as well that while Calvin and Beth are very close, neither of them really knows how to relate to Conrad anymore.

Conrad starts to pull himself out of his depression when he meets Dr. Berger, an unconventional psychiatrist recommended by the doctor at the hospital. The two talk, and Conrad starts recovering from his depression and slowly taking joy in life again. Calvin notices his son acting differently and decides to make an appointment for himself with Dr. Berger. For the first time, he is able to express his own guilt over Conrad’s suicide attempt and the growing distance between himself and his wife. He hopes that Dr. Berger can help him discover who he is. Conrad starts making friends again, his grades improve, and he begins dating. He starts to feel normal again like he has more control over himself and his thoughts. While Conrad’s life improves, he starts to realize his parents’ lives are not. Calvin is starting to notice that Beth is far from the perfect person he always saw her as, and Beth is more and more critical of both Conrad and of Cal’s concern for him. One day, Conrad sees a poster that reminds him of his brother and is shocked to realize he does not feel pain. Instead, the poster reminds him of the happy memories they shared together. The memories make him feel better. But when Beth finds out from a friend that Conrad quit the swim team, she starts a fight with him. Calvin defends him, and the argument rages long after Conrad goes to bed.

After Christmas, Beth and Calvin take a trip to Texas to visit her brother but have a nasty fight there that they do not resolve before the plane ride home. Meanwhile, Conrad struggles to cope with the suicide of a girl he met at the hospital. He grows closer to Jeannine Pratt, a girl he met in the school choir. She confesses to him that she has struggled with depression as well, and had issues with drugs and shoplifting. Conrad realizes he is not alone. After they return home, Beth decides to leave Calvin. She has been feeling disillusioned about their relationship for a while; she tells Calvin to let Conrad know that she has left, before leaving without saying goodbye. Calvin is deeply depressed, but Conrad is feeling better than he has for a while. He figures out what has happened and does his best to help his father adjust. He lets his father know that he loves him, and Calvin responds that he loves him too. It is implied that this is the first time father and son have ever said these words to each other. In the epilogue, Conrad reflects on his mother and says he believes that she loves him in her own way.

Judith Guest is an American novelist and screenwriter, best known for her debut novel, Ordinary People. She is also the author of three other novels, Second Heaven, Errands, and The Tarnished Eye. She co-wrote the mystery Killing Time in St. Cloud with Rebecca Hill, and authored the screenplay to the 1987 film Rachel River. She is the great-niece of former US Poet Laureate Edgar Guest.