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Judith Guest is a best-selling author, known primarily for her first two novels, Ordinary People and Second Heaven. Both books are set in contemporary middle-class suburbia, both have a troubled adolescent male as a central figure, and both portray characters grappling with such problems as suicide, depression, divorce, and child abuse. Guest illuminates common problems that many families struggle through, with a storytelling skill that makes the reader feel that no problem is truly ordinary.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Transient Childhood
Judith Guest was born on March 29, 1936, in Detroit, Michigan. She was the oldest of four siblings. in her childhood, her family moved around while her father, an aspiring businessman, tried different jobs. when she was eight the family moved to Oscoda, Michigan, so that her father could try his luck at another business. Guest’s mother did not like living in the country, and as a result the family soon moved back to Detroit, where they lived with Guest’s grandparents before settling into an apartment and into the city again. Guest attended many grade schools during this time. However, the family owned a small cabin on Lake Huron where they would always spend their summers, and this fact lent a sense of stability to her early years. The family still owns the cabin today.
Raising a Family
Guest began writing when she was twelve, but she never shared any of her work with her family. After graduating from high school she attended the University of Michigan and began studying English and psychology. intimidated by the creative writing classes, she chose a career as a teacher rather than a writer and graduated with a degree in education in 1958. That same year Guest married Larry Lavercombe, a business executive. She became pregnant with her first son, and took a job teaching first grade. With the birth of two more boys, her family and work life consumed her days. Guest put aside her writing to raise her three boys, Larry, John, and Richard.
The Decision to Write
During the 1970s Guest and her family were living in Palatine, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. As her boys entered school, Guest was once again able to look at a career of writing. For a short time she worked for various newspapers, and tried her hand at journalistic writing. She did not like the constraints and deadlines of journalism and soon took up fiction again. in 1970 she wrote a short story and sent it to a contest, where it placed sixtieth out of one hundred entrants.
The war in Vietnam was at its height and American society was becoming more fragmented. After taking a writing seminar, Guest was inspired to translate the nuances of this fractured contemporary suburban life onto the pages of fiction. in 1975 she decided to dedicate herself completely to writing her first novel. She worked for three years on Ordinary People. Guest states that her decision to concentrate on finishing her project was the most important decision she has made about her writing.
The Publishing Game
After Guest finished Ordinary People she sent the manuscript to two publishers who both sent her biting rejection letters. The second publisher stated that the writing was not capable of sustaining a reader’s interest. Undeterred, Guest sent the manuscript to Viking Press. When submitting a manuscript, writers usually send a cover letter with a book summary and the first two or three chapters to a potential publisher. An interested publisher will contact the writer and solicit the rest of the manuscript. Guest however, had sent her entire manuscript, which Viking Press held for eight months before replying that they were indeed interested in publishing the work. This made Ordinary People the first unsolicited manuscript accepted by Viking Press in twenty-six years.
Success and Hollywood
Ordinary People, the story of a family torn apart by the untimely death of a child, was an instant success. The novel was selected by four book clubs, serialized in Redbook, and had paperback rights sold to Ballantine for $635,000. In 1980, Robert Red-ford made his directorial debut and won an Oscar when he adapted Ordinary People for the screen. Guest herself approved of the ending, which was more inconclusive than the ending of the book. She also commended the acting, particularly Mary Tyler Moore’s portrayal of Beth, the mother. The film adaptation created an even bigger audience for Guest’s work.
Guest has written other novels, including Second Heaven, which appeared in 1982, Killing Time in St. Cloud, a work written with Rebecca Hill, and Errands. As with her first novel, these works present ordinary people dealing with extraordinary circumstances, struggling to maintain connections with others in the midst of loss and grief.
Today Guest lives in Edina, Minnesota, with her husband, her three sons, and seven grandchildren. She continues to write, and is working on a sequel to her mystery novel The Tarnished Eye (2004).
Works in Literary Context
Guest’s works describe the decline of traditional society and the family. The content of her stories was inspired by her childhood. Guest has said that her interest in cold and emotionally distant characters originates in experiences with her own relatives. Her father did not share his feelings openly. For example, he never told his daughter about the pain he must have felt when he was ten years old and his own father died. Guest translated these experiences into the pages of her suburban novels in a believable and realistic manner.
The Suburban Novel
After the Second World War, baby boomers left the cities and moved into nicely manicured suburbs. There, everything from the lawn to the picket fence was maintained in a neat and orderly fashion. However, Guest’s books capture the pain and suffering that occurs behind the closed doors of the apparent suburban bliss. In Guest’s works the forms of civility between the characters are maintained through a cold, self-controlled lack of emotional expression. The orderliness of the characters’ lives contrasts sharply with the agony that they are feeling, despite the superficial gloss that they show the world. Emotions are expressed through subtle body language or changes in routine behaviors. For example, stress is perceived when a character puts too many ice cubes in the evening martini. Guest shows the reader, in this new type of suburban novel, that there is real tension behind the manicured lawns, although it just might be covered up with a quick spray of perfume.
Guest’s works have been credited for their realism in portraying the complexities and sensitivities of family relationships. Although her characters are appealing and intelligent, they are depicted as they appear in everyday life. Guest’s characters are not glamorized, but rather portrayed realistically. This allows the reader to see the ugly, sordid side of their inner thoughts. Guest’s dialogue also reveals true teen angst and reasoning. The anxiety of adolescence is revealed in the smooth and realistic dialogue.
Works in Critical Context
While Ordinary People was an instant popular success, many critics considered it too plain in tone, with an unrealistic conclusion. However, the underlying irony of the work was praised by others, as well as the sensitive and realistic depiction of teen angst. Second Heaven also received critical recognition for realistically portraying the complications of contemporary adolescent life. In both novels, Guest describes with sympathy those who, for the most part, live or aspire to live on that middle ground where good and evil struggle, where happiness is not expected to come easily, and where love has more to do with giving than with taking.
Guest’s Ordinary People, was judged a rather bland and far from ironic novel, yet its title hints at a complicated irony. On the one hand, the book suggests, there are no ordinary people, but rather that all people are extraordinary in their pain and suffering. And on the other hand, ordinary people are what the characters’ hope to become, if they can conquer their fears. Regarding Ordinary People, the critic Lee L. Lemon said in his article ”First Novel,” ”It tours through the stereotypes of much contemporary fiction so precisely and so humanely that the reader cares.”
For reviewer Melvin Maddocks in Time, ”The author writes almost too unerringly clever dialogue. Everything is buried in the ubiquitous wisecrack—the ironic putdowns and self-putdowns by which Americans play tag with their terror of failure.” But Maddocks also acknowledged the success of the book. Guest ”has written a truly haunted story in which agony gives gloss a run for the money. The Furies in her suburb are real, even if she seems to banish them with a spray of Airwick.” The reviewer for Kirkus Reviews took a similarly positive view, commenting that the book succeeded in communicating a sense of life both felt and experienced without ever trespassing beyond actuality. Ordinary People is an exceptionally real book.”
It took Guest seven years to write Second Heaven. Her acute perceptions of how most people feel and think makes her second novel especially significant. She avoids the sensational, knowing that restrained reporting of the unpleasant is more effective. The main characters are a trio of two adults and an adolescent, whose lives resemble three lines narrowing until they meet, rather than three points of a triangle destined always to be separate. Critic Judith Chettle reflects, ”In describing the journey of these three people to a satisfactory equilibrium, she has given us a book that is neither pop schlock nor great literature but a work of humanity and good sense to which we can respond with pleasure.” Jonathan Yardley, in the Washington Post Book World, thought the novel a worthy successor to Ordinary People. He wrote that Guest is an extraordinarily perceptive observer of the minutiae of domestic life, and she writes about them with humor and affection.”
- Braginsky, Dorothea. Review of Ordinary People.” Psychology Today (August, 1976).
- Chettle, Judith. Fine Novel of Ordinary Lives.” Christian Science Monitor (November 7, 1982).
- Chettle, Judith. ”Dazed by School.” Chicago Tribune (November 20, 1988).
- Dickstein, Lore. Review of Ordinary People. New York Times Book Review (July 18, 1976).
- Lemon, Lee L. First Novel.” Prairie Schooner (Winter 1976/1977).
- Maddocks, Melvin. ”Suburban Furies.” Time (July 19, 1976): 68, 70.
- Review of Ordinary People. Kirkus Reviews (March 1, 1976): 271.
- Thorburn, David. Review of Ordinary People. The Yale Review (Summer 1977).
- Wood, Michael. ”Crying for Attention.” New York Review of Books (June 10, 1976).
- Yardley, Jonathan. ”Earth and Heaven: Judith Guest’s Encore to Ordinary People.” Washington Post Book World (September 22, 1982): B1, B15.
- Judith Guest: The Official Site. Retrieved December 6, 2008, from http://www.judithguest.com.
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