Aug 23, 2020

Ordinary People

by Judith Guest 

This was a re-read for me. A while back I decided I should read a handful of books in my permanent collection that I feel dubious about. If it turns out I don't care for them anymore, this becomes an easy way to cull. Last time I read this book I must've been in high school.

I remembered some of it, but most of the nuances and details had been forgotten- or had simply gone unnoticed by me at the time. I did remember it was about this kid struggling after the death of his older brother, how awkward family friends were about it, how unspoken most of the emotional burden he faced daily, how his parents were drifting apart under the strain. 

I'd forgotten that part of it is told from the father's viewpoint, but the mother is always described in third person. She seems cold, sometimes indifferent, accuses the dad of being overly concerned and too involved with his now-only son. The kid- Conrad- is repeating his junior year of high school while all his friends are now seniors. He became severely depressed after loosing his brother- in what sounds like a very frightening, traumatic incident (when it's finally revealed at the end of the story) made a suicide attempt, and spent time in a mental institution. Very little is described of that, but what is firmly shows how old this book is- the diagnosis is clear yet he's given no medication although several times a teacher or friend of the parents asks if he'd been put on tranqilizers. Nope, there's just mention that he received shock treatment, and when he comes home it's left up to him to take initiative to call a psychologist and go to appointments of his own accord. I found that surprising, honestly. 

What did feel very real and relevant no matter what the timeframe of this story- was how people struggled to know how to relate to Conrad now that he's home again. Things are the same- but also very different. Friends are awkward. He tries to meet and talk with a girl he knew in the hospital- there were quite good friends there- and that doesn't end well. He tries daily to beat down the anxiety in his head, to find the motivation to do normal everyday tasks, to focus in school. The therapist is odd and eccentric, but aside from that very good at his job as far as I could tell. I remembered from this part of the book the dramatic scenes when Conrad went in there upset and there was a lot of yelling- but during this read I noticed all the moments of careful guidance, of sound advice that wasn't too preachy, of how he helped Conrad figure out what he wanted to do and how to build himself up again as it were. And finally, in the end, to actually face the emotional turmoil he'd shoved down inside surrounding the incident with his brother. There's also some very nice parts about him facing down kids at school who are unkind, standing up for himself when he realizes being on a sports team isn't what he wants, finding a few new friends and even getting brave enough to ask out a girl he admires. 

It doesn't have a perfect, happy ending. It's a normal family with some heartbreaking difficulties, and they don't come through it all in one piece. Some things are better, some are not. The realism of that is what makes this book such a strong read. (I was terribly bored with all the mention of golf, though). Liked this book much better than I expected to; turns out I'm keeping it.

Rating: 3/5                                    263 pages, 1976


  1. I haven't thought about this one in a long time. I never read Guest's book, but the movie version of Ordinary People has stuck in my mind ever since I first watched it back in 1980. I remember being particularly impressed with the very young Timothy Hutton who played the surviving son. I think a big deal was made at the time of the fact, too, that Mary Tyler Moore played his mother. Donald Sutherland played the shrink, and Judd Hirsch, the father.

    Sounds like I need to finally read the book. Nice review, thanks.

  2. I didn't know this was a film. Perhaps I should watch it. I looked to see what other works Judith Guest has written and now I have a little list- especially Errands, which sounds just as good as this one.


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