Study Guide

Ordinary People Summary

By Judith Guest

Ordinary People Summary

Ordinary People opens with one ordinary person: Conrad Jarrett. Fresh out of a mental hospital, our boy, interrupted, is about to resume his average, everyday life. However, his world is still a little drab and gray, like an uncolored adult coloring book.

Conrad has trouble reconnecting with his friends, and he no longer finds pleasure in activities he used to enjoy, like being on the swim team. But why? Conrad visits a therapist named Dr. Berger. We don't know his first name yet. Ham? Cheese? Together, Dr. Mushroomandswiss and Conrad hope to get to the root of Conrad's problems.

Speaking of roots, no we don't have the Tonight Show house band, but we do have Conrad's parents: Calvin and Beth. They have problems of their own. It's too cold to play golf. There are too many options for a Christmas vacation. There's lots of paperwork for successful tax attorney Dad to complete.

Geez, life is hard in the suburbs.

Soon, we start to learn what makes this family tick. During Conrad's therapy sessions, we learn that he attempted suicide. The reason why is difficult to understand. It always is. Conrad feels guilty over the death of his older brother, Buck. And he feels like his mom totally hates him. All the blood when he slit his wrists totally ruined her nice towels.

Um, did we say tick? We meant tick, tick, boom. This family is a time bomb waiting to explode.

Meanwhile, all the guilt from the death of their older son and the suicide attempt of their younger son is tearing Calvin and Beth's marriage apart. Beth doesn't want to talk about it at all, and she thinks Calvin talks about it too much. Our dead son. Our alive son. Suicide suicide wah wah wah. Why can't they just go on vacation and ignore their children like everyone else? Ugh.

While Mom and Dad bicker between rounds of golf, Conrad attempts to rebuild his life. He distances himself from his friends because they remind him too much of his dead bro. He quits the swim team. Hmm…sounds like he doesn't understand the definition of "rebuild." However, he does start to play guitar again, he decorates for Christmas, and he starts a romance with Jeannine, a new girl at his school. There ya go, little C.

A tipping point occurs for Conrad when he gets in a fight with Stillman, a jerk at school. Both his therapist and his dad agree that this is a good thing because it means that Conrad is showing emotion. He's been depressed for so long that any emotion, even anger, is a good one. Seriously, Conrad, just pick a random emoji and act it out.

After losing his virginity to his girlfriend, Jeannine, Conrad learns something: not all people are as perfect as they seem on the outside. In fact, probably no one is. Jeannine reveals her flawed past to Conrad, and—surprise, surprise—he still likes her. Does this mean that people might like him even if they know he isn't perfect?

Most people would, but Beth is another story entirely. Mom still refuses to acknowledge Conrad. She's unable to get past her belief that Conrad attempted suicide to spite her. When Calvin mentions their son one time too many, she finally decides to leave the family and go on vacation herself. Don't forget your toothbrush, Beth, and don't let the door hit you on the way out.

Left by themselves, Conrad and Calvin move into a smaller home. Dr. Berger tells Conrad he will have to learn to accept his mother's behavior because she just doesn't know how to love. It's easier for Conrad to accept that when he doesn't have to see her every day. Mentally, he comes to terms with Beth, telling himself that she does love him; she just shows it differently than most people do. (As in, not at all.)

At the end, Conrad decides to reconnect with his best friend, Joe Lazenby. He can't run from his brother's death forever, and this is one more big step in making peace with it. Plus, Lazenby's mom is nice, and Conrad will take whatever he can get. Ordinary people unite.