Ordinary People


Plot Summary

Ordinary People is set in Lake Forest, Illinois, in the 1970s. The book begins after two significant events have occurred in the lives of the main characters. Buck, the older brother of protagonist Conrad Jarrett and son of protagonist Calvin Jarrett, died in a boating accident the summer before the book began. Conrad blamed himself for his brother’s death and experienced significant trauma because of it, eventually attempting suicide by slicing his wrists. Conrad was sent to a mental hospital for eight months following his suicide attempt. The novel opens a month after Conrad’s release from the mental hospital and return home.

One focus of the novel is Conrad’s struggle to reassimilate back into his daily life. His stay at the mental hospital led to him missing a large amount of school. As a result, he is a year behind his classmates. This leads him to feel like a failure, and these feelings of failure extend beyond his schoolwork. Conrad has been a member of the swim team, but no longer wants to be on the team. Instead, Conrad chooses to join the choir, finding some inner peace in singing. Conrad also struggles to fit back into his family. Calvin is overwhelmed with grief about Buck’s death and also about Conrad’s suicide attempt; he tries to avoid being intrusive in Conrad’s life, but is clearly trying to ensure he is not missing any warning signs. However, Conrad’s mother, Beth, wants to move on from the bad things that have happened. Conrad’s relationship with his mother is significantly strained; he is angry that she tries to ignore his brother’s death and his suicide attempt, while she is angry about his suicide attempt.

Conrad begins seeing a therapist, Dr. Berger. Conrad is not a fan of psychiatry, but is able to recognize that he needs help. He wants Calvin to stop worrying about him. His parents’ marriage is in a steady state of decline, which Conrad observes, and he is feeling both angry and guilty about that.

Conrad begins to show signs of improved mental health....

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