Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Ordinary People by Judith Guest

Ordinary People is the story of a young man who is returning to his life from a suicide attempt. His family is an upscale 1970s clan that firmly believes such things don't happen to them. Thus, while all parties involved want to return to normal, it's absolutely impossible, and trying only makes the issues worse

Our young man, Conrad, flounders all over the place until he meets a new therapist, Tyrone Berger. Dr. Berger wants Conrad to do what his family can't--face the issue that drove him to be suicidal in the first place.

While Conrad is told he must address the past in order to move into the future, his parents continue to pretend that nothing is wrong. Except that his father wants to cheat on a wife he may no longer love and his mother can't deal with the idea that she has no emotional attachment to her family.

This book could not have a more appropriate title. Everyone in the book is similar to anyone you might have met. They're all ordinary people, living lives that we all face, and in the end we either deal with the problems or we fall apart. That's Guest's lesson for the reader, and it's a good one.

As a book about how a family approaches their issues, this book is very we done. The reactions of the parents to Conrad feel natural based on their personalities. Conrad's school mates sound realistic (for a thirty year old book) and some of the issues he has to face--exams, his future, girls--are timeless. Dr. Berger is ahead of his time in relation to the material presented (mental illness) and it's nice to see that Guest feels his approach--while probably flawed by today's standards--is the right one.

Guest firmly rejects the idea of burying a family's problems as a relic of a past age. It's the age my parents lived in--one where things looked good on the outside but held demons on the inside that were forbidden to talk about with anyone who was not part of the inner circle. I'd be a fool o think that we have moved past that as a society, but I think we're better now than we were then.

In that respect, Ordinary People is a valuable tool for exposing the hypocrisy and damage that hiding things can do. I think we can all learn a lesson from this book in terms of truly expressing ourselves, even if it might cause some hurt in the short run. Even if the message is a bit dated, there's nothing wrong in having it reinforced.

Where this book has a problem, however, is that the family involved is anything but ordinary. They are definitely well-to-do. These are folks who golf and play tennis and can afford to go to Europe to run away from their troubles. It's hard for me to have sympathy for them because I cannot relate to them as people. I may understand the struggle a family has with mental illness in the family, but to really care, I need people who can't just run off to another country on vacation if they need a break. I want to care about Conrad, but I have a feeling his dad will get him a job somewhere if it comes to it, and that means my concern for him is diminished.

(Is this a bit classist of me? Probably. But I'm from a family of people who never could afford to stop looking over their shoulder, so I just can't relate to those whose idea of cutting back is less dinners at a five start restaurant.)

I also feel like things proceed just a bit too neatly. Plot elements work just a bit too neatly for my taste to get to Guest's desired conclusion. Conrad just eventually falls into Dr. Berger's line and then his life is better. I just don't see real life working like that, and since this is a book that's supposed to relate to real life, I found that to be a flaw I couldn't quite shake.

Ordinary People is not a book I'd normally read. I read this in one of my many failed attempts to be a part of a reading group. ( It's weird that while I read all the time, reading something someone else asks me to is sometimes really hard for me.) However, I can see its appeal, even if the work is definitely dated. Guest's characters are struggling to admit there's an elephant in the room, just like we all do. And just like the rest of us, how Guest presents this issue is flawed but she does the best that she can do. Overall, I think she does a pretty good job.

At this point, I think Ordinary People only has a limited appeal because the people portrayed are very much products of the time in which it was written. If you like books that deal with real problems, however, I'd give Ordinary People a try. It's definitely a relic, but a useful one, I think, for the right reader.

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