(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In the upper-middle-class Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, Illinois, Conrad Jarrett is preparing for school. The seventeen-year-old joins his parents, Calvin and Beth, for breakfast, during which they exchange uncomfortable small talk. It is one month to the day since Conrad returned from a mental institution. He was institutionalized after he tried to kill himself following the accidental drowning of his older brother, Buck.

Conrad rides to school with several friends; he feels out of place in English class, and his swim coach alludes tactlessly to Conrad’s experiences in the mental hospital. Conrad feels less guarded and uncomfortable only in chorus class. When Conrad comes home, he and his mother engage in a brief, strained verbal exchange.

Beth recommends to Cal that they take a Christmas trip to London, which makes Cal uncomfortable since he not only is worried about Conrad but also is grieving silently over Buck’s death. As part of his recovery from clinical depression, Conrad begins psychotherapy with Dr. Berger. He reveals that his brother drowned in a boating accident, confesses his own suicide attempt using razor blades, and announces that he wants to be in better control of his emotions and his life.

Conrad meets Karen, a friend from the mental institution. He learns that, far from experiencing his awkwardness and discomfort, she is very happily involved in her school. At a neighbor’s dinner party, Cal angers Beth by drinking too much and revealing that Conrad is seeing a therapist.

When Conrad reveals to Dr. Berger his increasing disgust with being on the swim team, Berger encourages Conrad to trust and act upon his feelings. Conrad quietly quits the team, causing an unpleasant confrontation with his mother, who verbally attacks him because she found out about his decision from a friend and not from Conrad himself. Conrad angrily accuses his mother of not caring about him and accuses his father of not understanding the simmering hostility between mother and son. Dr. Berger encourages Conrad to accept his...

(The entire section is 848 words.)