Ordinary People (1975) -- Book Review

"And what about tomorrow then? And all the tomorrows to come? Why can't we talk about it? Why can't we ever talk about it?” --Judith Guest, Ordinary People

I first met this novel a couple of years ago. At the time I felt it was fated -- the book being about a family, a tragedy, and the difficulties communicating. While I couldn't borrow or read it then, despite how fitting I felt it was to me and my life at that time, a week or so ago I found another book in the library that had an introduction by Judith Guest, and the title of this book, Ordinary People, was beside her name. So I read it.

The story is about a boy, Conrad, as he readjusts to his daily life after his brother dies in a sailing accident. He feels guilty for living, and had attempted suicide earlier. He doesn't succeed though and this story starts shortly after a stint at a rehab clinic. But I think the story isn't really about him -- it's also about his parents. It's a story about coping, about lies and silence and the uncomfortable distances between people who are too close.

I liked: How very readable it was. It felt like listening in on someone's thoughts, it felt like it could capture those narratives we tell ourselves. The small goals, the new people we meet, the ups and downs of existence. Most of all though, it made no excuses, in my opinion. We aren't ever told an answer, we don't know why people are the way they are. It's how life is, there never really is any solid answer we can hold on to. Yet all of this was done with humor, with a sort of lightness of touch. It wasn't a depressing read, if anything it was enlightening and funny. It was reminiscent of many 80s movies, I'm thinking in particular The Breakfast Club -- story about ordinary people and the quiet heroism of every day life. Also: there are only a few sex scenes in the book but they were incredibly well written. Just a few sentences, but so aptly, so well described. It wasn't larger than life or anything, but just simple and emotional. Almost too perfect, maybe.

I disliked: I felt that the story could have been richer with a little more perspective. We read a lot about Conrad's life and his father's life, but we are left almost in the dark about his mother's life. She is portrayed very harshly and very minimally that it seemed a little implausible.  Similarly, Conrad's recovery and path to 'normalcy' seemed just as forced, just as sudden and quick as though the author just wanted to finish the novel up.

A psychological coming-of-age story as well as a story of a family -- brilliantly rendered, easily readable and relatable. Doesn't shy away from the blunt truths of relationships. The only drawbacks are that it felt a little hurried, and the protagonist's journey seemed rushed and the people around him were stereotypes (his therapist, his mother) rather than full characters.


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