Judith Guest Essay - Critical Essays

Guest, Judith

Guest, Judith 1936–

Guest is an American novelist. Her first book, Ordinary People, was highly acclaimed for its realistic and sensitive portrayal of family relationships. Ordinary People was the first unsolicited novel to be accepted by Viking Press in twenty-seven years.

Ordinary People … is a rather bland and far from ironic novel, yet its title hints at a complicated irony. On the one hand, the book suggests, there are no ordinary people; people are all extraordinary in their way, both finer and feebler than we think. And on the other hand, ordinary people are what we may become, if we can conquer our fear of being extraordinary. In a novel, that fear has to be acted out. In Ordinary People, it is the novel, the trace of a season of exile….

[The] whole novel is subtly implausible … because problems just pop up, get neatly formulated, and vanish, as if they were performing a psychoanalytic morality play. "I think I just figured something out," Conrad [the protagonist] says to his psychiatrist, and he has. It's a milestone on the road to reason.

The psychiatrist, a wisecracking cross between Groucho Marx and Philip Marlowe, is perhaps Judith Guest's major contribution to current mythology….

But … Conrad's psychiatrist, like most of the characters in the book, is very charming and very intelligent. Judith Guest has a good eye for social detail and a good ear for turns of phrase, and the breeziness of her manner … goes with her brisk good sense…. She measures health by a capacity for jokes, which means both a faith in shared meanings (people understand you when you say the opposite of what you think) and a sort of independence within a community (your wit pulls you out of the rut of routine).

It is a shallow notion, but not a dishonorable or an unsympathetic one, and Ordinary People is not a book to be condescended to….

Ordinary People is … a snappy, proficient novel that reads a little too smoothly for its subject; skates on thin ice without managing to give us any real sense of how very thin the ice is. (p. 8)

Michael Wood, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1976 NYREV, Inc.), June 10, 1976.

"Ordinary People" is a fine and sensitive novel, if small and not completely successful.

"Ordinary People" is a strong, honest portrait of a troubled boy: 17-year-old Conrad Jarrett, grade-A student, member of the choir and swim team, a typical Midwestern kid from an ordinary American family. What changes the routine of normal life of these conventional people is Conrad's suicide attempt and a subsequent eight-month stay in a mental hospital. The effect of Conrad's breakdown and recovery on the people around him is the mainspring of the novel.

There are the usual reactions: He doesn't look crazy, is mental illness catching?… The forms of civility become all important: freak out politely, please; mind your manners. But Conrad feels the "air is full of flying glass," the order and control that once served as stability for him no longer work. We suspect from the very beginning the genesis of Conrad's problem—his older brother died in a boating accident and he survived—but even this kitschy Freudianism does not detract from the novel's strength.

Guest portrays Conrad not only as if she has lived with him on a daily basis—which I sense may be true—but as if she has gotten into his head. The dialogue Conrad has with himself, his psychiatrist, his friends, his family, all rings true with adolescent anxiety. This is the small, hard kernel of brilliance in the novel; the rest is deeply flawed. Guest is an unsure narrator: there are jarring shifts of tone, and confusion about who is speaking (and this is not experimental fiction); the devices for presenting characters are crude and unimaginative. (Twice we are introduced to people as they examine themselves in a mirror.) But these are tricks of the trade that can be learned. Judith Guest has a raw, unpolished talent, but she also has a passionate honesty and sensitivity that cannot be bought from a mail-order Writer's School. (pp. 14-18)

Lore Dickstein, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 18, 1976.

There are not many first novels like Judith Guest's Ordinary People. It tours through the stereotypes of much contemporary fiction so precisely and so humanely that the reader cares—in the same way that he cares, for example, for the family in Joseph Heller's Something Happened. The stereotypes include the adolescent-with-problem, the mother-with-social-activities, father-with-sensitivity, psychologist-with-accent. In the usual run of contemporary fiction, the stereotypes are plugged into equally stereo-typical social themes—the decline of the family, the loss of values, the banality of modern life. Mrs. Guest works with her characters as persons….

The tone of the novel is splendidly controlled, the sentences a pleasure to read…. It is the kind of multi-valued prose seldom found in first novels—it sets the scene, establishes the tone, shows the character, and poses the problem; each element contributes to the combination of effects.

Despite the grimness of the subjects—death, insanity, difficulties in human relationships—Miss Guest manages to suggest that people do indeed survive and may even thrive. And because of her skill, the suggestion is as plausible as it is reassuring.

Lee L. Lemon, "First Novel," in Prairie Schooner (© 1977 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Winter, 1976/77, p. 380.

Guest's experiences as a mother, her sensitivity to the painful uncertainty of adolescents, lie behind [Ordinary People, her] often moving story of the tentative, groping reentry into human society of a seventeen-year-old boy who attempts suicide and spends eight months recuperating in a mental institution. But this bare summary suggests a book more melodramatic than the actual novel, which … is unusually restrained in its careful descriptions of the boy's struggle with the ordinary routines of his life…. There are passages, even whole chapters, that declare themselves as apprentice-work, worthy in intention but uncertain or awkward in the actual writing. Guest is less effective with the boy's parents than with the boy himself, and the mother, especially, seems more a dramatic convenience than a fully realized character, her own guilt and sense of inadequacy emerging rather too schematically as a parallel or counterpoint to the pattern of her son's experiences. But the boy and his pain are rendered with great insight; Guest's ear for teenage dialect is acute, and her prose achieves an unflamboyant eloquence…. (p. 589)

Sanity is truly a profound moral option for this troubled young man, an urgent conscious labor against the smallest gestures and choices and flarings of memory. But neither he nor his creator would think to say such an explicit thing, much less to diminish his vividly particularized anguish by absorbing it to some modernist paradigm of universal malaise. (p. 590)

David Thorburn, in The Yale Review (© 1977 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Summer, 1977.