Ordinary People came out in 1976 and exploded in popularity because of the 1980 movie version, directed by Robert Redford. I read this book not in high school (I hear it's often assigned reading, and my copy from the Book Nook contained pink highlighting and scribbles about character development), but on the beach in the Caribbean in March 2009. The recession left the resort half-empty, so I didn't have to bear too much laughter and lightness from fellow vacationers as I read a retro first novel that promised to bring me down.
In a few pages I realized the sad plotline - a suddenly and tragically dead son, his younger brother struggling with what it means to survive (both physically and emotionally), a family attempting to rebuild around the empty space of a profound loss - did not have the typical effect of invoking my own grief and struggle from the past. Before I knew it I lived in the world of the novel, listening to the evocative dialogue over dinner tables, as parents came and went for work and errands and as the remaining three communicated from bottom steps, one hand on the banister, and through closed doors. The novel takes place in an affluent Chicago suburb, a place I've never been, yet it feels familiar. Instead of letting the smell of the sea and the perfectly warm sun engulf me, I walked with the Jarretts on their clean sidewalks, through a stifling and lonely summer and a fall that fails to live up to the season's self-replenishing promise.
Recently I found this quote from Judith Guest, describing her motivation behind writing the novel: "I wrote it because I wanted to explore the anatomy of depression - how it works and why it happens to people; how you can go from being down but able to handle it, to being so down that you don't even want to handle it, and then taking a radical step with your life - trying commit suicide - and failing at that, coming back to the world and ahving to 'act normal when, in fact, you have been forever changed."
Often it's discouraging to read a quote like this, because an author has come up with such an idea and built characters, setting and story as an afterthought, all part of a vehicle to convey the message. Ordinary People doesn't fall into this paradigm of inorganic storytelling. The psychology of Conrad's devastation, however deeply explored before Guest's fingertips hit the typewriter, constitutes just one essential and thematic thread in this natural and accessible tale of one family coping with two unthinkable tragedies. Conrad's withdraw from the world, and his internal struggle, prove an invisible and complex set of hurdles nearly more difficult for the Jarretts to navigate than the very public and definite death of Buck.
Guest switches points of view to follow the aftermath of Buck's death and Conrad's spiral into depression, which allows us windows into the Jarrett's marriage, Conrad's subsequent adjustment (or lack thereof) in his return to school, therapy sessions (newly en vogue in the 1970s setting), and how the three of them move about the house with a heavy and sometimes all-consuming grief setting into every empty space. Stylistically, Guest makes the devastating subject matter into a story that's easy to read. Her pitch-perfect dialogue never drags on or feels preachy or hokey; she lets the invisible narrator step back and watch what unfolds, but not with so much distance that we don't catch her message. There's a lesson here about psychology and depression, and what essential qualities a family must have to survive the unthinkable.