Born in 1936 in Detroit, Michigan, Judith Guest graduated from the University of Michigan and got married in 1958. She taught briefly and began to write when her three sons were in school, turning three early short stories into her first novel. Ordinary People had the distinction of being the first unsolicited manuscript to be published by Viking Press in some twenty-six years; it became a best seller. Actor Robert Redford, impressed by this sensitive and realist novel, chose Ordinary People as the basis for his first directorial effort; the 1980 film adaptation won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1981.
Ordinary People captures brilliantly and honestly the reality of a modern family. The character of Conrad, whose adolescent angst degenerates into self-destructive clinical depression after a tragic accident interrupts his life, is compellingly drawn. The life-giving relationship between Dr. Berger and Conrad is beautifully explored, as is Calvin’s gradual metamorphosis into a deeply empathic father. Readers see Beth through the other characters’ eyes rather than through her own, heightening the mystery of how she, despite being raised in a “good” home, becomes coldly obsessed with predictability.
Through the effective use of such narrative devices as flashback and interior monologue, Guest enables readers to see into the lives and minds of her major characters. The juxtaposition of present-day events with brief, focused flashback scenes elucidates and sharpens the background and context for the characters’ present words and feelings. Moreover, readers are concurrently presented with characters’ external conversations and their contrasting interior monologues, which often reveal the characters’ true feelings.
Guest’s stylistic devices underscore a primary theme in Ordinary People: the extreme complexity and difficulty of communication. Words are supposed to facilitate and clarify, not obstruct, communication. Of Buck’s death, Guest writes that the euphemism “deceased” is “a symbol . . . without power to hurt, or to heal.” At a dinner party, a...
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