Study Guide

Ordinary People

By Judith Guest

Ordinary People Introduction

Looking at some of the most popular books of the last few years, it seems that everyone loves reading about psychos, space stories, or nerds. Gone Girl is about a married couple living happily never after. The Martian is about a man trapped on Mars. And Ready Player One is about the nuttiest weirdos of them all: people who love the 1980s.

But once upon a time, people liked to read about, well, ordinary people, just like themselves. And where better to find them than in a book called Ordinary People? If you're looking for magic and wizards, you're gonna have to look elsewhere and work on your reading comprehension. Ordinary People has no fights to the death, no vampires, no epic road trips, no dystopian societies…unless being stuck in suburbia is a dystopia to you.

What can a book possibly be about without any supernatural elements? Well, it's about the Jarrett family, the members of which are—spoiler alert—ordinary people dealing with ordinary problems: a death in the family, a suicide attempt, marital strife, and therapy. Hey, we didn't say it was a happy book.

Published in 1976, Ordinary People quickly became the quintessential book about suburban angst. It was Judith Guest's first novel, and she definitely wasn't depressed to see it skyrocket to fame. An ordinary person herself, she submitted her manuscript to Viking Press and became their first unsolicited manuscript to be published in 27 years. Wow.

Guest didn't just sell over a half-million copies; her book was also adapted into an Academy Award-winning film in 1980. It had just a smidge of star power behind it. Robert Redford directed. Mary Tyler Moore starred. You may have heard of them. It won Best Picture, Best Director, and a couple other extraordinary prizes.

But back to the book. This is Ordinary People, after all, and not Hollywood People, who are as far from ordinary as one can get. The novel also won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, which has nothing to do with cockroaches but is actually for American women authors. This prize puts Guest among the ranks of Toni Morrison, Ann Patchett, and Ursula K. LeGuin (source).

An award-winning author, Judith Guest may no longer be all that ordinary, but her book is still enjoyed by ordinary and not-so ordinary people all over the world. Who knows, maybe even some angsty aliens have enjoyed it somewhere out in the galaxy. We'd read an Ordinary Martians space-age spin-off. They're probably even more emo in space because in space, no one can hear you be neurotic.

What is Ordinary People About and Why Should I Care?

Fashions change, but depression is forever. That's a depressing thought.

Excuse us for a second while we cry into our infinity scarf that will be dated this time next year.

Okay, we're back, dry-eyed and ready to roll. Ordinary People tackles a universal topic: depression. It's something we can all relate to, because a) that's what "universal" means, and b) despite our outward appearances, we're all basically ordinary people. Well, except Gwyneth Paltrow. We all have hopes and fears, and we all want people to think we're a lot more amazing than we actually are.

Ordinary People prompts us to look past people's outward appearances and think about what they're really feeling on the inside. Just because your second cousin twice removed always posts pictures of her perfect family outings and immaculately plated dinner dishes doesn't mean she's actually happy. Plus, all those Instagram posts add to the photographic evidence of her soon-to-be obsolete fashion sense.

The pressure to live a perfect life can be stressful and damaging, maybe even more so in the social media age than in the 1970s when the book is set. Ordinary People reminds us that people have been trying to fake it till they make it for many years. And guess what? No one actually achieves perfection. Not even Gwyneth. So chill out.

Ordinary People Resources

WEBSITES

Extraordinary Author
Judith welcomes guests to her website so she can share with them what she's been writing—and she's still writing, well into her seventh decade.

MOVIE OR TV PRODUCTIONS

The WASP's Sting
Although Beth might be the character we understand the least in the novel, Mary Tyler Moore garnered the highest praise for bringing her to life on the screen.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

Twenty (Years of) Questions
Twenty years after the publication of Ordinary People, Judith Guest is still being asked about the book. She swears that her personal life is not like that of her characters.

Ordinary Readers
Guest believes her books have such a wide appeal because they are about universal experiences, like death, family issues, and having Mary Tyler Moore as a mother.

Her Writing Keeps Lifting Readers Higher
In this early interview, Judith Guest says writing shouldn't be "preachy" but should be "uplifting." Did she succeed with Ordinary People?

VIDEO

"Judith Guest Loves Making Wintercraft Ice Globe Lanterns!"
We don't know what an ice globe lantern is, but Judith Guest loves them. And the exclamation point in the title means ice globe lanterns must be exciting.

The Tipping Point
Judith Guest talks depression in thirty-five seconds or less, if you fast-forward.

Sequelitis
In 2014, Judith Guest was still answering the question "will there be a sequel?" But she says it's done. It's over. Give it up and go home, people. (However, she does have some ideas about what happens after the final page.)

AUDIO

Read Us a Story
Does the narrator of the Ordinary People audiobook sound as ordinary as you think she should?

Hello, Darkness, His Old Friend
Guest doesn't tell us which exact Simon and Garfunkel song Conrad plays on guitar, but you know it's "The Sound of Silence."

But He's From Illinois…
Conrad also plays John Denver. "Take Me Home, Country Roads" sounds like his style.

IMAGES

Cover Boy
Even though this cover looks like someone drew it with his or her feet, it captures the loss of Buck that haunts the family during the novel.

Family Photos
These promo photos for the movie make the Jarretts seem like your average, everyday, normal, commonplace, conventional, regular suburban family. Hmm, there must be an adjective we missed…