Ordinary People

Ordinary People

by Judith Guest


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One of the great bestseller of our time: 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. Ordinary People is an extraordinary novel about an "ordinary" family divided by pain, yet bound by their struggle to heal.

"Admirable...touching...full of the anxiety, despair, and joy that is common to every human experience of suffering and growth." -The New York Times

"Rejoice! A novel for all ages and all seasons." -The Washington Post Book World 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780140065176
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/28/1982
Edition description: REPRINT
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 54,882
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.50(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Judith Guest won the Janet Heidegger Kafka Prize for her first novel, Ordinary People, which was made into the Academy Award-winning 1980 film of the same name. Her other novels are Second Heaven, Killing Time in St. Cloud(with Rebecca Hill), and Errands. She lives with her family in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Harrisville, Michigan.

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.


Excerpted from "Ordinary People"
by .
Copyright © 1982 Judith Guest.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Ordinary People 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 103 reviews.
TipsyInCT More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this in high school, and actually liked it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!
Lily_Cullen More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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!
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book Ordinary People by judith Guest is a bout an ordinary family that go through some problems due to the death of a family member. The main characters are Beth (mother)Cal (father), and Conrad (son). Buck was another son and he drowned in a lake while he was boating. Conrad couldn't save him and in result of this he had a suicide attempt. he went to a mental hospital for eight months. He comes back home and tries to do everything the way it used to be. he has some problems with himeself, parents, and friends. Then he's mother leaves leaving him and his dad alone hoping she will return. one of the major conflicts is realy not knowing if his mother loves him. Beth doesn't show that she loves him and he is not sure either. Conrad now has to learn to have control over everything he does. He goes to Dr. Berger and he helps him but he has to take control over all of his feelings and emotions in order to get better. he also had to make friends, because the friends he has were Buck's friends. The theme of this story is how an ordinary family can break apart little by little. Overall I think this was an alright book. It wasn't very exciting that's why I didn't like it very much, but it's cool because the problems that the family faces can happen to any family in our society. I would not recommend this book to people that like to readd exciting books because thi is not one of them, but to people that like books that deal with real life problems the book is pretty good.
SoonerCatholic on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Setting: This novel about healing and self-help is set in Chicago during the 1970s.Plot: The Jarrett family struggles to overcome their grief at the loss of one of the boys.Characters: Conrad (protagonist) attempted suicide, trying to return to normal; Cal- Conrad's father, overprotective; Beth (antagonist) unable to forgive, perfectionist; Berger- psychiatristSymbols: not symbolicCharacteristics: Written as how people think, switches point of view between father and son.My reaction: The book was fascinating because of the unique point of view; but I disliked it for its excessive profanity and the fornication. It was hopeful book, however.
moonshineandrosefire on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is about a family's reaction to a younger son's attempted suicide after his older brother's drowning death. It's a book about the family coming to terms with the sadness and grief in their lives. I enjoyed this book very much and give it an A+!
campingmomma on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It took me a couple weeks to read this 260+ pg. book only because with my short term memory loss sometimes when I have to stop reading suddenly ( like waiting at the dr.'s office and they call your name), I totally have to backtrack read so I never got far. It was so intense and well written I didn't want to forget a single detail of the story. So, today I took the day off and read the whole book. It was a book I acquired from one of my children's former schools when at the end of the school year they still can't find it in their room or their car and I ended up paying for it so I thought I would read it. I found it while moving recently. I had no idea it was about a post suicidal teenager who's brother died in an accident a year or two before and I would say that would be my only complaint about the book. The author really took her time in telling what tragedies had befallen the Jarret Family and mixed that information with the current ongoings of the family and sometimes I would find myself confused as to what time and event I was reading about. I can't really put my finger on it, but it is another of the reasons I needed to read it nearly straight through. I would have liked to been able to savor it more, but because of all the innertwining of the stories I felt rushed to get to the next bit of information about the next event. I rushed through it so I could remember all the details and because I couldn't wait to see what lie on the next page, yet because I couldn't savor it I didn't enjoy it as much as I would have liked. Don't let me deter anyone from reading it for just that reason. It was a fabulous book to read. I'm kind of glad I paid for it.
caroren on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Highly acclaimed novel about family dealing with the sudden accidental drowning of one son and the attempted suicide of the another. The novel shows us how each family member copes differently with the tragedy and the disruption and the guilt which is inevitable.
Voop on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a good work of fiction. The author draws out many emotions from the reader. It is a bit 'sensationalised ', if you could useed that word. As in reality living with a mental illness and having suicide attempts within your family is a get deal more complicated and painfull than the book depicts.
Kace on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I had to read this book in my lit class in 10th grade. I didn't particulairly like the story, but it was well written.
DLayton on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book follows the confusion and depression of a young man who looses his brother in a tragic accident. I felt Conrad's pain, and I hated and loved his mother at the same time. There is a sense of hope in the end although still a bit sad which makes the book seem very realistic and triumphant.
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Love this book, would highly recommend it
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ordinary people is a exceptional book i will definately read it a millipn times!
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