Sunday, October 02, 2016

Ordinary People (1976)

Because Judith Guest happened to live in a suburb that neighbored mine, I became aware of her first novel when I might not have otherwise. I have always thought she brings a good sense for the ways of privileged white suburbia here, not to mention she is a careful yet freewheeling and interesting writer. Still, her most famous novel is now unfortunately a little dated. It seems too concerned by half with the angsts of overprivileged people, even acknowledging that the specific crises detailed cross class lines—death of a child, suicide attempt, recovery, and like that. It's just hard to feel sorry for them when the gaps are this big. "I could deal with that" is a stubbornly recurring thought, as when the adolescent at the heart of the story gets a car for Christmas and isn't sure how he feels about it. It's also part of a certain era of jaunty psychotherapy, albeit distorted heavily by stigma, that now seems more part of the past. It's distinctly unfriendly to its women characters, which was only exaggerated in the Robert Redford movie adaptation that followed in a few years (with basically all the problems, and virtues, of the book). In some ways, Guest seems to be taking a self-conscious step away from the prevailing feminism. It's a good novel, yet somehow maybe a little hollow, underwhelming, obvious. It's as programmatic as scenes from a year in the life of a recovery, implicitly attempting to normalize grief and recovery—explicitly attempting it, when you consider the title—but that's all good. There's a tremendous amount of skill in the writing—a lot of thoughtful craft and technique went into this. There are great sentences and paragraphs, with a nice ever-shifting sense of point of view. And, yes, a kind of natural ease in the milieu of white upper-middle-class repressions. We all wish we had their money, and we all probably think we could manage the crises better than they do. I'm sure we could not. But alas, that is obscured by an inevitable resentment about a lifestyle systematically denied a great many of us. It might seem more sympathetic if the lifestyle were remotely in reach. But that's another point where the '70s are different from the times we live in now.

In case it's not at the library.

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