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Ordinary People | Study Guide

Judith Guest

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Judith Guest | Biography


Early Years

Born March 29, 1936, Judith Guest was raised in Detroit, Michigan. A great-niece of poet Edgar Guest, she studied English and psychology at the University of Michigan and graduated with a degree in education. She married her college boyfriend, Larry LaVercombe, and soon started a family, eventually having three sons.

Writing Ordinary People

Looking closely at her own life and the lives of the people around her inspired Guest to explore the themes she chooses in her novels. She noticed the way society encouraged people, especially men, to "be afraid of their feelings." Opposed to such unhealthy stifling of emotions, she wanted her novels to be "positive" rather than "preachy" and focused on families working toward solutions instead of merely accepting the status quo.

After teaching in public school for several years, Guest decided to leave the field to concentrate on writing a novel—which became Ordinary People. Without an agent, she sent her manuscript to Viking Press unsolicited after it had been rejected elsewhere. It was the first novel in 27 years the company had pulled and published from the unsolicited pile. The book became an instant best seller and was adapted into a feature film shortly after its publication, going on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1980.

Initially Viking did not like Guest's title. They were interested in marketing the book to a young adult audience and claimed, "Young people do not like to think of themselves as ordinary people." Guest, however, defended the title, considering it a commentary about how bad things could happen to anyone and how people have to figure out how to deal with these kinds of incidents. Guest decided to set the novel in a wealthy suburb of Chicago because it was a code for keeping up appearances. It is "pointless," she says, "to keep up appearances because everyone is ... so you don't know anyone and what is really going on it their lives."

Other Works

Though she is best known for Ordinary People, Guest has continued to write novels in the psychological realism genre about young people in Middle America. These novels include Second Heaven (1982) and Errands (1997).
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