Judith Guest Guest, Judith (Ann) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Judith (Ann) Guest 1936–

American novelist.

Guest's first novel, Ordinary People (1976), propelled her to fame as a best-selling author and was adapted into an award-winning film. Second Heaven (1982), her second published novel, had been started several years before Ordinary People was written. Both books are set in contemporary middle-class suburbia, both have a troubled adolescent male as a central figure, and both portray characters grappling with such problems as suicide, depression, divorce, and child abuse. There are strong thematic similarities between the two works as well, as Guest herself notes: "Communication is a preoccupation of mine; so is domination. How people dominate other people and why they do it. How you get out from under that if you want to, and whether you really want to." Thus, although Guest places her characters in unusually harsh circumstances, her works concern issues which most young adults face.

Ordinary People was the first unsolicited manuscript which Viking Press had accepted for publication in twenty-seven years. The novel relates the story of a young man reentering high school and family life after spending time in a mental institution. Guest describes Conrad's struggle with insanity and depression and the ways in which pain can both bring a family closer together and tear it apart. Critics praised Guest's realistic and sensitive portrayal of Conrad and found it superior to her characterization of the adults in the novel. Despite the opinion of some critics that the events of Ordinary People are too neatly orchestrated and potentially maudlin, the book is elevated above the level of formulaic pulp fiction by Guest's ear for dialogue, especially where young people are concerned.

While most critics thought Guest avoided melodrama in Ordinary People, many suggest that she was less successful in Second Heaven, in which she tells of three lonely, troubled people who try to help one another. Cat and Mike, both divorced, offer sixteen-year-old Gale the emotional and legal help he needs to escape the clutches of his abusive father and in the process assuage some of their own loneliness. In this novel, Guest sets up a clear conflict between good and evil; she allows good to triumph in a courtroom conclusion which many critics considered too idealistic. Like Ordinary People, Second Heaven is very tightly organized; some critics expressed a desire to see Guest relinquish some of the control with which she writes. However, critics did not suggest that Ordinary People was a fluke; nearly all found much to praise in Second Heaven.

(See also CLC, Vol. 8 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)

Kirkus Reviews

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ordinary people on any street where you live, people you might know, people you'll know better at the end of this straight, unassuming, encroaching first novel [Ordinary People]. A family, or what's left of it—the Jarretts, after the circumstantial whim which took the life of their eldest boy in a boating accident and left Conrad, less "perfect," but much nicer with a sense of guilt he couldn't shake and still can't, even after trying to commit suicide, hospitalization, and now his return home. Home being the place where you keep your distance—from an indifferent, inaccessible mother and perhaps a too protective father who have to come to terms with other difficulties. This finds Conrad attempting to deal with everyone's unease, particularly his own…. This has none of the sentimental over-indulgence of [Hannah Green's I Never Promised You a Rose Garden], the obligatory referral and potential market (young people will also like this). Where it does succeed, and succeed it does, is in communicating a sense of life both felt and experienced without ever trespassing beyond actuality. Ordinary People is an exceptionally real book.

A review of "Ordinary People," in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. XLIV, No. 5, March 1, 1976, p. 271.

Melvin Maddocks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ordinary People is a quite good but thoroughly conventional novel that reads, in fact, like the old-pro product of an intelligent, thoroughly practiced veteran. Ms. Guest's hardly unorthodox subject is a middle-class American family from the Middle West. Make that upper-middle-class….

Picking up the story after Conrad returns home [from a mental hospital], Ms. Guest deals with love and hate, forgiveness and the lack of it, madness and death—the themes appropriate to Greek tragedy. But she must deal with them in the terms of the well-made suburban novel. Panic equals the rattle of father's ice cube in one-too-many martinis. Despair equals the hundred small ways a Christmas Day falls apart, even when the keys to a new Le Mans for Conrad lie under the tree. Loneliness gets spelled out in the instructions on a frozen TV dinner.

The author writes almost too unerringly clever dialogue. Everything is buried under the ubiquitous wisecrack—the ironic putdowns and self-putdowns by which Americans play tag with their terror of failure. For failure is finally what Ordinary People is about. It may be Guest's ultimate irony that the older brother's drowning and Conrad's attempted suicide are only symbols for spiritual death—for a thousand subtle methods of neglect and undernourishment by means of which loved ones kill and are killed within the family circle.

What is this emotional malaise for...

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Dorothea D. Braginsky

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Ordinary People, Judith Guest portrays the emotional demise of a family with depth, subtlety, feeling and intelligence….

The book opens with young Conrad's return from a mental hospital where he spent several months following a dramatic, bloody suicide attempt. The story that unfolds is his and his parents' efforts to become ordinary people again. The unexpected disorder of their well-ordered lives, however, makes it impossible for them to continue as before. The further tragedy of their lives is that they know no other way to be….

Somewhat surprisingly, the story is told through the eyes of Conrad and his father. The mother's point of view, even though she is foremost in the men's lives, is barely articulated. We come to know her only in dialogues with her husband and son, and through their portrayals of her. For some reason Guest has given her no voice, no platform for expression. We never discover what conflicts, fears and aspirations exist behind her cool, controlled facade.

Nonetheless, the Jarretts' inner struggles, their attempts to communicate, and their reactions are exquisitely though painfully detailed. Guest understands and articulates the human frailties that lead to conflict, hurt feelings, withdrawal, and isolation. Although it would have been easy for her to resort to psychiatric clichès, the author maintains the integrity of her novel and of her characters by using strictly human terms to describe their predicament; the language of grief, anger, guilt, and hope.

Dorothea D. Braginsky, in a review of "Ordinary People," in Psychology Today, Vol. 10, No. 3, August, 1976, p. 84.

Paddy Kitchen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Ordinary People] Judith Guest takes an 'ordinary' … family in which the son, 17-year-old Conrad Jarrett, has just returned home from a mental hospital, eight months after a suicide attempt. Her technique is to reveal information about Conrad and his parents, Calvin and Beth, in a colloquial, present-tense, piecemeal way—a method more often found in thrillers or adventure stories. She uses the technique extremely skilfully, with twists and turns that come like the proverbial unexpected buckets of cold water. There is nothing sentimental in the way she presents her characters….

Psychologically, the book might have been even more probing if the problem rested between these three characters. But it has been detonated by the death of a fourth—Conrad's drowned elder brother. This tragedy has stripped away the normality which fuelled the parents' daily life, and has revealed their inadequacies….

Sentimentality comes in with the psychologist, Dr Berger, whose kindly, nonconformist ways help Conrad to accept himself. Berger seems so percipient and humane that one questions the likelihood of such a perfectly balanced doctor-patient relationship. That understanding and love are needed to restore the members of the Jarrett family to 'normal' functioning is acceptable; but the epilogue where Conrad terminates his meetings with Berger …, and feels strong enough to renew a relationship with his old schoolfriend …, and manages to feel accepting towards his absent mother …, seems a little too warm and rosy. The book has been compared to Catcher in the Rye, which I also found sentimental, and young readers of the Seventies may empathise with Conrad Jarrett just as those in the Fifties did with Holden Caufield.

Paddy Kitchen, "Sentimental Americans," in The Listener, Vol. 97, No. 2494, February 3, 1977, p. 158.∗

Janet G. Stroud

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Probably the best … of the books that depict the emotionally disturbed [is] Ordinary People…. Ordinary People, as so many have observed, is not an ordinary book. It is a very skillfully constructed, extremely sensitive book….

The characterizations in Ordinary People are excellent; it is a very thorough examination of the ways other people react to a person who has had a nervous breakdown. Conrad's mother is only concerned about the mess he made in the bathroom when he tried to commit suicide and considers his suicide attempt in some way a personal affront to her. Father is over-protective and excessive in his concern for Conrad; he constantly watches for signs of another breakdown. The parents' widely differing perceptions of Conrad and his illness constitute a source of strife for them and quite literally tear them apart.

Other people's reactions to him also vary: some are openly hostile, some are overly solicitous, and some are simply embarrassed by the whole situation. Above all, everyone is intensely interested in him, and ever watchful to see if he'll try it again. (p. 291)

Janet G. Stroud, "Characterization of the Emotionally Disturbed in Current Adolescent Fiction," in Top of the News, Vol. 37, No. 3, Spring, 1981, pp. 290-95.∗

Michele M. Leber

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Guest's first novel, Ordinary People …, was such a publishing/media event that her second is bound to be closely scrutinized and compared. Second Heaven may disappoint; its subject of child abuse and its juvenile detention center setting are farther from the mainstream, and its structure (alternate sections from the viewpoint of three main characters) is less tight. But what Guest does well—getting into the heart, soul, and mind of a troubled teenager—she does marvelously well…. More pain and less polish than Ordinary People, but the same strong core of sensitivity and insight.

Michele M. Leber, in a review of Second Heaven, in Library Journal, Vol. 107, No. 13, July, 1982, p. 1344.

Kirkus Reviews

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ordinary People was no fluke: [Guest's second novel Second Heaven] again expertly catches middle-class loners in the first crackles of seismic rebellion against closet miseries—and again zooms in close on adolescent terror. The principal grownups this time [Catherine "Cat" Holzman and lawyer Michael Atwood] are two insular people, both recovering (with each other's eventual help) from divorce…. Cat and Michael still remain only mildly, distantly connected … until one night 16-year-old Gale Murray, fainting and seriously burned, arrives at Cat's door: abused since infancy by a maniacal, religious-fanatic father …, Gale has been irrevocably alone…. Understandably, then, both Cat and Michael are drawn into Gale's strangulated life—as Cat gives him a temporary home and Michael becomes his lawyer. (Placed in a juvenile detention center, Gale awaits trial for "incorrigibility.") And after more anguish and savagery for poor, uncommunicative Gale, all three isolated, ordinary people will be liberated, will open up and reach out, finding new havens/heavens in one another. Despite the slightly unconvincing melodrama of Gale and his predicament: a totally involving triptych of hurt, healing souls—… [Second Heaven has] the same direct, plainly mesmerizing impact that was the hallmark of Guest's near-legendary debut.

A review of "Second Heaven," in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. L, No. 16, August 15, 1982, p. 942.

Jonathan Yardley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To get right to the question at hand, the answer is Yes Judith Guest has done it again. The hundreds of thousands of readers who were touched and amused by her lovely first novel, "Ordinary People," are going to find themselves touched and amused by her second, "Second Heaven." If from time to time Guest seems to be straining in the effort to demonstrate that she is no one-shot phenomenon, who's to complain? The virtues of "Second Heaven" are manifold, and far more consequential than its few flaws. (p. B1)

["Second Heaven"] strikes a number of universal chords. Set in Detroit, it involves three people who decide—slowly, painfully, with fear and trepidation—to take the risk of...

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Norma Rosen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In] "Second Heaven," Judith Guest brings her own passionate moral concerns to a fine, old-style, high-drama confrontation with evil. (p. 12)

As in "Ordinary People," the teen-age boy in "Second Heaven" is evoked with great tenderness and insight. When Miss Guest curves her writing arm about the shoulders of a troubled boy he must sooner or later yield up his heart and mind to her, no matter how hard he tries to hold back.

The book's suspenseful climax is the custody hearing…. The result is a rousing three-cheers-for-love dénouement. Yet this reader must withhold one of those cheers. For one thing, "love—that most passionate of religions" is called upon to redress so much that...

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Peter S. Prescott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One of the things that popular fiction can do well is to work up in its readers a little awe at the horrors that life makes available to us all and then conclude in a way that leaves us feeling rather good: life does work, doesn't it? Judith Guest is a master of just such performances. Admirers of her immensely likable first novel, "Ordinary People," will feel cozily at home with her second ["Second Heaven"]. Again, a damaged adolescent boy stands at the center of her story; again, the extent of his wounds will not be immediately apparent. Again, two adults with problems of their own attempt to save the boy from cooperating in his own destruction….

Guest is not just a popular novelist; she means to...

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I can't complain that I wasn't moved by Judith Guest's "Second Heaven."… I was moved, I really was. I felt tense and worried in all the right places and sighed with relief when I ought to have and cheered when the heroine, Catherine (Cat) Holzman, snaps at her psychiatrist: "I think you make a fetish out of refusing to give advice. It's not natural. You should see someone about it." (Lo and behold, he then gives advice!)

I even cried in the one or two places I was supposed to, which is no more or less than the author, with her apparently exquisite sense of control, would have wanted….

Certainly, "Second Heaven" can't really be accused of being clichéd. The prose may be a little...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In her second work of fiction [Second Heaven], Best-selling Author Judith Guest … has rearranged the furniture, repapered the bathroom and polished the silver. Unfortunately, these are the only alterations she has made in prose style or personnel….

The members of the trio play discords and harmony based upon Guest's familiar melodies: "As for love … what did anyone ever really know about it? You did what you had to do." The effect is relieved only when the author writes about what is further from her own experience. Gale's sojourn in a county facility for problem children moves with a poignant freshness and a depth of emotion, proving that, in Guest's case, talent advances with the...

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Judith Chettle

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Victorian times the high middle ground of literature may have been overcrowded. In recent years it has been almost deserted, as writers of literary ambition fled in terror lest they be tainted by its association with some need for moral force and good sense. But Judith Guest, who enjoyed considerable success with her first novel, "Ordinary People," has with "Second Heaven" again deservedly claimed this middle ground for her own.

Guest is a writer whose particular talent is to articulate the concerns and interests of, well, ordinary people. She describes with sympathy those who, for the most part, live or aspire to live on that high middle ground where good and evil do struggle, where happiness is...

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Priscilla Johnson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Judith Guest, whose first novel, Ordinary People …, was both a popular and a critical success, has written another dramatic and moving story [Second Heaven]. This time the focus is not on an "ordinary" nuclear family, but on three lonely people who feel rejected by their families and whose lives come together by chance…. The touching final chapter gives promise of a new "family" to be formed by these three, who fill real needs in each other's lives. This ending is happier, though less realistic, than the bittersweet conclusion to Ordinary People. Guest again takes us into the hearts and minds of real and likable people. She writes of post-divorce problems and troubled teenagers with great...

(The entire section is 143 words.)

Kliatt Young Adult Paperback Book Guide

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Ordinary People, Guest told us about one failed family and the pain of an adolescent boy suffering from a mother's coldness and guilt over a brother's death. In Second Heaven, Guest writes about three failed families, from the viewpoint of one member of each….

Most YA readers will be drawn to Gale's character, his strength in surviving, his confusion, fear, shame, and angry rebellion against authority. Guest tells poignantly how abuse hurts the spirit as well as the body of a child and, though she ends the story in a positive way, the reader knows clearly that Gale will always suffer in some way from his father's beatings. The loneliness, aimlessness, depression, worry over...

(The entire section is 197 words.)