Ordinary People

( 97 )


The Novel that Inspired Robert Redford’s Oscar Winning Film starring Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore

In Ordinary People, Judith Guest’s remarkable first novel, the Jarrets are a typical American family. Calvin is a determined, successful provider and Beth an organized, efficient wife. They had two sons, Conrad and Buck, but now they have one. In this memorable, moving novel, Judith Guest takes the reader into their lives to share their ...

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Ordinary People

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The Novel that Inspired Robert Redford’s Oscar Winning Film starring Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore

In Ordinary People, Judith Guest’s remarkable first novel, the Jarrets are a typical American family. Calvin is a determined, successful provider and Beth an organized, efficient wife. They had two sons, Conrad and Buck, but now they have one. In this memorable, moving novel, Judith Guest takes the reader into their lives to share their misunderstandings, pain...and ultimate healing.

Judith Guest is the author of six novels, including Ordinary People, Errands, and the Tarnished Eye.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140065176
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/28/1982
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 103,972
  • Product dimensions: 5.06 (w) x 7.77 (h) x 0.48 (d)

Read an Excerpt


To have a reason to get up in the morning, it is necessary to possess a guiding principle. A belief of some kind. A bumper sticker, if you will. People in cars on busy freeways call to each other Boycott Grapes, comfort each other Honk if You Love Jesus, joke with each other Be Kind to AnimalsKiss a Beaver. They identify, they summarize, they antagonize with statements of faith: I Have a Dream, TooLaw and Order; Jesus Saves at Chicago Fed; Rod McKuen for President.

Lying on his back in bed, he gazes around the walls of his room, musing about what has happened to his collection of statements. They had been discreetly mounted on cardboard, and fastened up with push pins so as not to deface the walls. Gone now. Probably tossed out with the rest of the junk—all those eight-by-ten colorprints of the Cubs, White Sox, and Bears, junior-high mementos. Too bad. It would be comforting to have something to look up to. Instead, the walls are bare. They have been freshly painted. Pale blue. An  anxious color. Anxiety is blue; failure, gray. He knows those shades. He told Crawford they would be back to sit on the end of his bed, paralyzing him, shaming him, but Crawford was not impressed. Lay off. Quit riding yourself. Less pressure more humor go with the stuff that makes you laugh.

Right, of course. Right again. Always right: the thing that is missing here is a Sense of Humor. Life Is a Goddamn Serious Big Deal—he should have that printed up to put on his bumper—if he had a bumper, which he doesn’t, not Conrad Jarrett the Anxious Failure dress this guy in blue and gray. A thousand-word book report due Wednesday in English Lit. The book has not been read. A test over the first six chapters in U.S. history. A surprise quiz in trig, long overdue.

He rolls onto his stomach, pulling the pillow tight around his head, blocking out the sharp arrows of sun that pierce through the window. Morning is not a good time for him. Too many details crowd his mind. Brush his teeth first? Wash his face? What pants should he wear? What shirt? The small seed of despair cracks open and sends experimental tendrils upward to the fragile skin of calm holding him together. Are You on the Right Road?

Crawford had tried to prepare him for this. “It’s all right, Con, to feel anxious. Allow yourself a couple of bad days, now and then, will you?”

Sure. How bad? Razor-blade bad? He wanted to ask but he hadn’t, because at that point his suitcase was packed and his father already on the way to pick him up and remarks like that only got you into trouble, pissed people off. Cancel the visa. Passport Revoked: they stamp it in red across your forehead. Uh uh. He’d had enough of that place. In the last months he had been able to spot the permanent residents every time.  That unmistakable shuffling shoulders-bent walk. Mostly old men but some younger ones, too, in the dull, dusty-maroon bathrobes, sides flapping loosely, like the drooped wings of dying birds. Never. It was too damn small a world. Except that you always knew where you were. Mornings you talked first, then had O.T.—macramé, painting, woodworking, clay. Afternoons you could take a nap, go for a walk, work out in the gym—a well-equipped, exclusive YMCA—basketball, handball, racquetball, you name it. Evenings there were card games, small get-togethers in the corners of the lounge, Scrabble, backgammon. Leo told him once, “Stop worrying. You’re okay. You can play Scrabble, that means you can concentrate. You’re ready.” He had laughed. “It means you can spell,” he said. “That doesn’t mean shit.” “Well,” Leo said, “it’s nice to be good at something.”

His father calls to him from the other end of the house. He thrashes to a sitting position, connected at once to sanity and order, calling back: “Yeah! I’m up!” and, miraculously, he is up and in the bathroom, taking a leak, washing his hands and face, brushing his teeth. Keep moving, keep busy, everything will fall into place, it always does.

He takes a quick look in the mirror. The news isn’t good. His face, chalk-white, is plagued with a weird, constantly erupting rash. This is not acne, they assured him. What it was, they were never able to discover. Typical. He tries to be patient as he waits for his hair to grow out. He had hacked it up badly, cutting it himself the week before he left. (“I didn’t think they would let you have scissors,” his grandmother said to him. “They shouldn’t have,” he answered her, oh so casual, thereby relieving the listeners of shock and embarrassment while exhibiting his poise, his Sense of Humor, see  folks? Everything’s okay, he’s here, wearing his Levi’s, boots, and jersey shirt, just like everybody else, all cured, nobody panic.

This house. Too big for three people. Straining, he can barely hear the early-morning sounds of his father and mother organizing things, synchronizing schedules at the other end of the hall. It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t need to hear, and they would certainly not be talking about anything. important. They would not be talking, for instance, about him. They are people of good taste. They do not discuss a problem in the presence of the problem. And, besides, there is no problem. There is just Phase Two. Recovery. A moving forward.

From what? Toward what? He dresses himself (Progress!), looking out of the window, studying the lacy line of Russian olives that separates their property from the next-door neighbors’—what’s their name? Nice couple, but no kids, they’ve lived there for years—dammit, dammit, that’s the kind of stuff that scares you, not being able to remember names. He stares in concentration at the tall hedge of cedars hiding the house from the road. Cahill. Their name is Cahill. Okay, now relax.

But he cannot relax, because today is a Target Date. Tuesday, September 30. One month, to the day, that he has been home. And what are you doing Jarrett? Asking weird questions like From what? Toward what?  Questions without answers. Undermining. A serious affliction. Worse than acne, worse, even, than an unidentifiable rash. So what the hell kind of cure was that? In the rec hall one night they.showed a movie on insects, The Something Chronicle. Hellstrom,that was it. The May fly has a life-span of eighteen hours. It spends that entire time laying eggs for the next generation. May flies, the narrator explained, know the answer.  Because they never even have to ask the question. Nice for the May Hies.

There is a prickly sensation at the back of his throat. He turns away from the window, picking up his books from the desk. Then he puts them down again. No. Follow routines. First, the bed; then line up the towels in the bathroom; then pick up books; then eat break-Cast; then go to school. Get the motions right. Motives will follow. That is Faith. Vainly, he has taken to reading bumper stickers again, but they belong to other people. They are not his statements. I Am a Hockey Nut. Christ Is the Answer—What Was the Question?

Vaguely he can recall.a sense of calm, of peace, that he had laid claim to on leaving the hospital. There were one or two guiding principles to get him through the day. Some ambitious plans, also, for putting his life in order. But the details have somehow been lost. If there ever were any.


Razor in hand, he stands before the rectangular, gold-trimmed mirror, offering up a brief prayer: Thanks. Appreciate all you’ve done so far. Keep up the good  work, while, beside him, his wife brushes her hair. Her face is soft in the morning, flushed, slightly rounded, younger than her thirty-nine years. Her stomach is flat, almost as if she never had the babies. She raises her hands to the back of her neck, pinning her hair into a neat coil at the back of her head. Beautiful hair, the color of maple sugar. Or honey. Natural, too. The blue silk robe outlines her slender hips, her breasts.

“Did you call him?”

“Yeah, he’s up.”

She sighs. “I hate to play golf when it’s cold. Why doesn’t anybody in this league know enough to quit when the season’s over? Leaves on all the fairways, your hands freeze—it’s ridiculous.”

He leans toward her; gives her a kiss on the neck. “I love you.”

“I love you.” She is looking at him in the mirror. “Will you talk to him this morning? About the clothes. He’s got a closetful of decent things and he goes off every day looking like a bum, Cal.”

“That’s the style. Decency is out, chaos is in—” As her brows lift, he nods. “Okay, I’ll talk to him.”

“And the other thing, too.”

“What other thing?”

“Stopping by Lazenbys’ on the way home. Carole called again last week. It’s such a little thing....”

“I don’t want to pressure him about that. He’ll do it when he wants to. Carole understands.”

She shrugs. “When people take an interest, it would seem courteous—”

“We all know he’s courteous.” He turns his attention to his beard. Every morning the same face, the same thoughts. A good time to take stock, though. Calvin Jarrett, forty-one, U.S. citizen, tax attorney, husband, father. Orphaned at the age of eleven. He has caught himself thinking about that lately, thinking of the Evangelical Home for Orphans and Old People, an H-shaped, red brick building on Detroit’s northwest side, where he grew up. Wondering if after all these years it is still in existence. Strange that he has never bothered to check. An odd kind of orphanage: most of the kids had at least one living parent; some even had two. He had moved there when he was four, leaving the tiny apartment where he was born. His mother sent him gifts on his birthday, and at Christmas. Occasionally she visited him. Periodically she explained why he was living there, and not with her: there was no room for him in the apartment, no money; it was no neighborhood in which to bring up kids. She had a friend who knew people that were connected with the Home; just luck. The director had told him once that the Home was  financed by “religious benefactors.”

He was named Calvin, for his dead uncle; Jarrett had been his mother’s maiden name. When she came to see him, she came alone. No one claiming to be his father had ever been in attendance; he had no memories of being any man’s son. So, if anyone should ask, he can always point out that he had no example to follow.

And what is fatherhood anyway? Talking to a kid about his clothes. Not applying pressure. Looking for signs. He knows what to look for now: loss of appetite, sleeplessness, poor school performance—all negative, so far. His son eats, he sleeps, he does his homework. He says he’s happy. Another duty: asking silly questions. Are you happy? He has to ask, though; pretends that he is kidding, just kidding; Conrad replies in kind. Pointless. Would the answer have been any different, even if he had thought to ask, before? Good manners have nothing to do with communication, he must remember that. And being a father is more than trusting to luck. That, too. Nobody’s role is simple, these days. Not even a kid’s. It used to mean minding your manners, respecting those who were bigger than you, treating each day as a surprise package, waiting to be opened. Not any more. So what’s changed? Not enough surprises? Too many, maybe.

He has had a vision all these months, of boys, with their heads next to stereo speakers feeding music into their ears, their long legs draped over chairs and sofas. Or their arms, stretched toward a basketball hoop in the side drive (he had sunk the posts in cement himself, when Conrad was eight, Jordan, nine; just after they bought the house). Where are all these kids? Joe Lazenby, Phil Truan, Don Genthe, Dick Van Buren—they are all seniors in high school this year. Is eighteen too old to play touch football on the lawn? Basketball in  the side drive? Is it girls? Studies? Since he has been home, Conrad has gone once to the movies. Alone. “Didn’t anybody else want to see it?” Cal had asked. “I don’t know,” he said. “I didn’t ask.”

Responsibility. That is fatherhood. You cannot afford to miss any signs, because that is how it happens: somebody holding too much inside, somebody else missing signs. That doctor in Evanston. Make sure he calls him. It is for his own good. Why? Because his own vision, that of the boys hanging around, isn’t coming true? It has only been a month. All the other signs seem right. Stay calm. Keep it light. Try not to lean. A balance must be struck between pressure and concern.

Back when Conrad was in the hospital, back when the visits were limited to twice a month, he could afford to take responsibility for everything: the sections of gray peeling paint in the stair wells; small gobs of dirt swept into the corners of the steps; even a scar at the side of one orderly’s mouth. Now that he is home again, things are different. The responsibilities seem enormous. Staggering. His job alone, nobody else’s. Motherhood is different, somehow. And what about fathering girls? He must ask Ray Hanley sometime, how it feels. Is there more, or less responsibility? He couldn’t take more. Your mother wants me to tell you, you have a closetful of decent clothes. He will smile. “Okay. You told me.” But, in a minute, he will ask, “What’s wrong with what I’ve got on?”

Nothing. Nothing I can see. Only I don’t pass up any chances to discharge these fatherly duties, this is the age of perfection, kid. Everybody try their emotional and mental and physical damndest.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 97 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 97 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 20, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:


    This has to be my absolute favorite book of all time. Anyone can relate so well to this, it is such an adaptable book. I feel that the author talked about and explained psychiatric and social problems so honestly that it wasn't exploiting anyone. The characters are so real and relatable, Judith Guest is an excellent author.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 27, 2006

    powerful story

    The Jarrets struggled to heal after the elder of two sons, Buck, died in a tragic boating accident. The younger Conrad, being the only witness to the death, couldn¿t help but blame himself. The death in the family caused the typical family life to go awry. What had previously been an ordinary, functional family transformed into something else the tidy mother, Beth Jarret, subjected her troubled remaining son, Conrad, to the brutal suggestion that she didn¿t love him. Conrad claimed that he could feel her hatred toward him. He constantly compared his mother¿s cold, aloof behavior to her previous affectionate treatment of the late Buck. The warmhearted father, Calvin, became unable to blame Conrad for just about anything because he observed Conrad¿s persistent, albeit unwarranted, guilt. Seeing that Conrad was so hard on himself pained Calvin, although Conrad actually pined for some discipline from his father. Conrad¿s shame grew to be so unbearable that he attempted to commit suicide. Suspected to be dangerous by some, he tried to get better in a hospital and then later working with a psychiatrist, Berger, who helped him discover that he was innocent to survive the boating accident despite his brother¿s failure to do so. Secretly angry with his brother for letting go and drowning, Conrad accepted that he didn¿t let his brother down ¿ that he was not responsible for his death. He realized that he survived only because he was physically stronger. At first sharing his feelings only with his doctor, Conrad gradually learned how to express his emotions. He used this new skill in developing a relationship with Jeannine,with whom he shared a special, romantic bond. As they became closer, she asked him if his attempted suicide hurt. In his response he admits that she was the first person to ask him about it, besides doctors of course. As Conrad continued to make progress with the psychiatry, his volatile emotions became a problem in his relationship with his friends. Judith Guest¿s Ordinary People reveals several beautiful messages through Conrad¿s journey to forgive himself. Conrad breakthrough occurs only after he uncomfortably lets people in. He develops new relationships, and he also develops the ability to express his feelings honestly and passionately. The variety of realistic feelings and reactions produce a certain profundity in the dramatic novel. Both Calvin and Conrad grow tremendously by learning to accept reality rather than to hide from the pain. The novel entertains the reader by use of an unfolding plot and convincing yet simple dialogue. The book begins ¿en media res¿ leaving the reader constantly curious. Being a picky reader, I was (naturally) apprehensive about trusting my father when he recommended Ordinary People to me. To my delight, it surpassed my expectations At times it was hard to become enthusiastic about picking up where I had left off, after engaging in the material for only a few minutes, I became absorbed again by the plot and the characters.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2006

    I don't usually like to read...but,

    I read this in high school, and actually liked it.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 10, 2012

    A classic

    One of those instances where the movie is better then the book, however still a good read. At times depressing, but also uplifting in the end.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2011

    A very bipolar book

    This book was hard to follow due to the constant switching of perspectives, point of view (1st and 3rd), and present to past tense. Also, there was not very good character building at all. On top of that, the book is overly, unnecissarily descriptive when it comes to unimportant details. I don't recommend this book at all and give it a zero of five stars, though i gavebit a one above just because it wouldnt let me post if i didnt give it a rating.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 7, 2010

    The Best Book I've ever read

    I decided to read this book for my Language Arts book report, because I had seen the movie, and fallen in love with the story. This book made me cry and truly think about how often one tries to create and exemplify the perfect lifestyle. I fell in love with the Jarrett Family, and I will always remember this book as being the first book that I had ever read that made me feel like a better person after reading it. Please do yourself a favor and read Ordinary People by Judith Guest!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 15, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    A Great Read

    I chose to read this book for my English class book club. It sounded like something I would enjoy, I just didn't expect that I would enjoy it so much! It was a very quick read for me and I enjoyed every minute of it. This story was touching; it made me laugh and cry; over all, this book was frigging awesome. I can't say enough about it. Read it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 7, 2005


    This is such a deeply moving book! I really enjoyed it. The way Guest wrote it reaches into your very soul, into the very things that bind humanity together and make it whole. Most of all, it is real. It isn't some imagined joke of some sort, it is fact. The things that occur in Ordinary People are not, in society normal. Neither, however, are they abnormal. I think that is where the true heart of the book lies, in challenging normality. Who, the reader asks, is to decide what 'normal' is? Who can? No matter what, each individual has their own opinion of 'normality' crafted by experience and those around him/her. Ordinary People explores an 'ordinary' American family and shows that nothing is what it seems- that NOTHING is normal, that no one is perfectly sane. I highly recommend this book!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 24, 2005


    A great story. The Jarrett's go through alot of pain and sorrow. They deal with death and suicide. It's hard for the family to connect. They just want to start over and be ordinary people, but don't know how to begin. Conrad feels guilt over his brother's death. He goes through depression. The family has lost touch with one another. It's hard to say goodbye to someone you love. Healing is what this family needs. A good story. I couldn't put this book down.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 15, 2015

    In the novel, Ordinary People, Judith Guest shows how a happy fa

    In the novel, Ordinary People, Judith Guest shows how a happy family falls apart after the accidental death of the older brother. Although this book was written in 1976, many of its themes are still relevant. I agree with others that many people have experienced the problems discussed in this book  This novel is appropriate for a high school student as well as an adult reader and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in these issues. 

    Despite its title, this book has some limitations with regard to its appeal to a broad audience. Although Ms. Guest refers to the Jarrett family as “ordinary” this is a bit misleading because they are a well-off Caucasian family with a large house, membership in the local golf club and enough money to take European vacations. I could identify people who are like the Jarrett family because I live in an affluent town in Connecticut. There is no diversity in this book.  The options that this family had to cope with death are not really available a majority of Americans. However, the pain caused by the death of a family member is a universal theme and the description of high school life remains accurate.  Therefore, I recommend this book to people seeking to understand how different people try to cope with a tragedy. 

    The main character in the book is Conrad Jarrett, a high school student who was with his older brother when he died in a boating accident. Conrad was so devastated by his brother’s death that he has tried to commit suicide and has just returned from the hospital to try to get back to  a more normal life. He was my favorite character because as a teenager it was easy for me to relate to him and his embarrassment and difficulty with high school issues such as not feeling comfortable around his teachers and his brother’s friends and finding it difficult to care about everyday events like who won a swim meet or studying for a test.  

    Ms. Guest does a good job in addressing how a teenager would feel in these circumstances. A good example and my favorite quote is when Conrad is speaking to his psychiatrist about his guilt that his brother died. “You don’t understand, “ he says. “It has to be somebody’s fault. Or what was the whole goddamn point of it?” (Guest 224) Teenagers struggle with their ability to control their lives and this novel shows how Conrad learns to accept that there are many issues in our lives that we cannot control.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 11, 2013

    Love it

    Love this book, would highly recommend it

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2012

    Great Story !

    A Beautiful sad and heartbreaking story of a family dealing with life and death. After experiencing the lost of one son, the family forgot about each other.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 19, 2012

    Lexis home

    Yes the lexi from nook town

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2012

    Ordinary people is so delightful

    Ordinary people is a exceptional book i will definately read it a millipn times!

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  • Posted June 26, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Simply excellent

    Judith Guest is amazing as she creates this seemingly normal family that has so much dysfunction. Whether or not you have gone through the same thing every family has its problems and this book touches on that. How normal and perfect some may seem on the inside and how tortured they are on the outside. You fall in love with the characters! I love this book

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 7, 2005

    a book that makes you reflect

    This is one of the best books i have ever read. It makes you relate to the characteres and reflect on your life.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2005

    ordinary people

    To be honest i really did not like the book maybe because i didnt relate much to what was going on. But i think people should still read the book it just wasnt my taste, but maybe it could be yours.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 31, 2005

    Really Great Book!

    This a book that helped me in my life problems too.It tells me that how everyone is trying to fit in this world.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2005

    Good book

    I thought this was a good book. Very touching and this is my second time reading it in high school. I can relate to Con's anger and depression and fear throughout the whole book. Good believable characters.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 17, 2005

    Great Book!!

    Ordinary Poeple is an extraordinary novel about an ordinary family divided by pain and suffereing. In our world today, there are so many people still trying to live in this 'perfect' world and fit in, but in reality we are all just ordinary people.

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