Ordinary People Background

Ordinary People Background

Judith Guest is an American novelist born in Detroit, Michigan in 1936. She studied English and psychology at the University of Michigan, and these two areas of study come heavily into play throughout her book, Ordinary People.

Guest’s novel focuses on the Jarrett family whose eldest son, Buck, has recently died on a sailing trip. Distraught by this sudden death, the other Jarrett son, Conrad, attempts suicide and is subsequently admitted into a mental hospital. After only a few months, Conrad is released from psychiatric care and sent back to live with his parents. The book explores the aftermath of these tragic incidents and how the Jarretts cope with their loss. Guest honed in on the science of depression because she hoped to depict “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 to commit suicide — and failing at that, coming back to the world and having to act normal when, in fact, you have been forever changed.”

Guest originally planned to write Ordinary People as a short story, but her deep attachment to these characters urged her to expand upon the story even further. Finishing this novel was no simple task as she quit her teaching job in order to fully concentrate on completing the book. Once she was completed with the novel, Guest sent it to two publishers, both of whom rejected the manuscript. The third publisher that reviewed Ordinary People, Viking Press, ultimately bought the rights to Guest’s work.

While the novel was received well by the public, Ordinary People’s greatest legacy derives from its film adaptation, directed by Robert Redford and starring Donald Sutherland. The 1980 film went on to win four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Director, and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.

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