This Day In Literary History
On March 29th, 1936, the famous American novelist Judith Guest was born in Detroit, Michigan. The famous poet Edgar Guest was her great-uncle. Judith Guest studied English and psychology at the University of Michigan, where she belonged to the Sigma Kappa sorority.
In 1975, Guest wrote her first novel. Having no agent, she decided to sell it herself. Her first two submissions were rejected. The first publisher rejected the novel without comment.
The second enclosed a note with her rejection slip saying that "While the book has some satiric bite, overall the level of writing does not sustain interest and we will have to decline it."
The third submission proved to be the charm. An editor at Viking Press immediately bought Guest's novel. It was the first time in over 25 years that Viking had bought and published an unsolicited manuscript.
The release of the novel was far from immediate; the editor held it back for eight months, so that it would hit bookstores in July of 1976 - the time of the bicentennial celebration in the United States.
To release this particular novel around the time of the country's 200th birthday was clever, as it told the story of an all-American family that falls apart after its mask of perfection is suddenly ripped off. Ordinary People would become a classic novel and make Judith Guest's name as a writer.
Ordinary People opens with the Jarretts, a wealthy upper class family who live in a big house in an exclusive neighborhood in Lake Forest, Illinois, appearing to have come to terms with the sudden death of oldest son Buck in a sailing accident six months earlier.
Then, younger son Conrad, 17, attempts suicide by slashing his wrists. He had been suffering from severe depression, as he was on the boat with Buck when a sudden storm hit, and his brother was killed.
Conrad's parents, Cal and Beth, commit him to a psychiatric hospital. After eight months of treatment, he returns home and goes back to school, but his unresolved issues threaten his sanity.
His father, Cal, encourages him to see a therapist. Resistant at first, Conrad agrees to therapy and begins seeing Dr. Tyrone Berger, an eccentric psychiatrist. He begins to open up and Dr. Berger helps him work through his issues.
Conrad's issues include survivor's guilt and an apathetic mother. Beth Jarrett has an anal-retentive "type A" personality and is maniacally devoted to perfection. Determined to be the perfect wife and mother, she keeps a perfect house and had built a perfect family.
But that perfection was shattered when Buck died, and now she is incapable of grieving for him, feeling for her troubled surviving son, or dealing with the fact that her perfect life has been shattered.
Beth's husband, Cal, a tax attorney, grew up in an orphanage after losing his mother at the age of 11. He never knew his father. Becoming successful and wealthy after enduring a poor and unhappy childhood is a source of great pride to Cal.
He always believed himself lucky, but now that his family is falling apart, he begins to wonder who and what he really is and where his life is headed. To add to his mid life crisis, his wife Beth has become cold, distant, and frigid. His marriage is crumbling.
The experimental narrative switches between Cal and Conrad's points of view and includes interior monologues and stream-of-consciousness narration. Ordinary People won Judith Guest the Janet Heidiger Kafka Prize for best first novel.
Before the novel hit the bookstores, legendary actor-filmmaker Robert Redford got a hold of a preview edition. He loved the book, bought the movie rights, and directed the feature film adaptation, which was released in 1980.
The highly acclaimed film, which starred Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, and Timothy Hutton, won several Academy Awards. Redford took home the Best Director Oscar for his directorial debut.
With the success of the film, the novel became a subject of study for middle and high school English classes. This led to challenges from some disgruntled parents due to the dark subject matter and a brief sex scene between the troubled, teenage Conrad and his new girlfriend, Jeannine.
Ordinary People would be the first of several novels by Judith Guest that dealt with adolescents in crisis. Her most recent novel, A Tarnished Eye, (2004) was loosely based on a real life crime that took place in her native Michigan.
In this novel, the rural community of Blessed, Michigan, is shattered when an entire family - a couple and their four children - are found savagely murdered in their summer home. The Sheriff, Hugh DeWitt, still reeling from the death of his infant son, must deal with his grief as he tries to solve the murders.
There had been a history of conflict between the locals and the rich city folk who come to Blessed to buy up the land for their vacation estates. Could that have been the motivation for such a monstrous crime?
Judith Guest lives with her family in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Quote Of The Day
"I wanted to explore the anatomy of depression — 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." - Judith Guest on her classic novel, Ordinary People.
Today's video features the original theatrical trailer for the highly acclaimed 1980 feature film adaptation of Judith Guest's classic debut novel, Ordinary People. Enjoy!