Guest, Judith

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Guest, Judith


Born March 29, 1936, in Detroit, MI; daughter of Harry Reginald (a businessman) and Marion Aline (Nesbit) Guest; married August 22, 1958; husband's name, Larry (a data processing executive); children: Larry, John, Richard. Education: University of Michigan, B.A. (education), 1958.


Homem—4600 West 44th St., Edina, MN 55424. E-mailm—[email protected]


Writer. Elementary teacher in public schools in Royal Oak, MI, 1964, and Birmingham, MI, 1969; writer for Palatine Press, Palatine, IL, and Daily Herald, Arlington Heights, IL, during early 1970s; teacher in continuing education program, Troy, MI, 1974-75.


Authors Guild, Authors League of America, PEN American Center, Detroit Women Writers.

Awards, Honors

Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, University of Rochester, 1977, and named New York Public Library's Books for the Teen Age, 1980, 1981, and 1982, all for Ordinary People; Second Heaven selected among School Library Journal Best Books for Young Adults, 1982.



Ordinary People, Viking (New York, NY), 1976.

Second Heaven, Viking (New York, NY), 1982.

The Mythic Family: An Essay, Milkweed Press, 1988.

(With Rebecca Hill) Killing Time in St. Cloud, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1988.

Errands, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1997.

The Tarnished Eye, Scribner (New York, NY), 2004.


Judith Guest: 'Second Heaven' (sound recording), New Letters, 1984.

Rachel River, Minnesota (television adaptation; based on stories by Carol Bly), Public Broadcasting Service, 1989.

Contributor to periodicals, including Writer.


Ordinary People was adapted as a filmstrip released by Center for Literary Review, 1978, and was filmed by Paramount, 1980, directed by Robert Redford, starring Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, Timothy Hutton, Judd Hirsch, and Elizabeth McGovern; a stage version was published by Dramatic Publishing in 1983, and an audiocassette adaptation was released by Recorded Books, 1986; Second Heaven was adapted for audiocassette by Recorded Books, 1983.

Work in Progress

White in the Moon, a sequel to The Tarnished Eye; Don't Be Too Sure, a sequel to Second Heaven; short stories for anthologies.


With her first two novels, Minnesota author Judith Guest showed herself to be a perceptive chronicler of adolescent problems and emotions. With the publication of Ordinary People in 1976, Guest caused critics to take notice, and positive critical assessments were confirmed with her follow-up work, Second Heaven. Although she has not been a prolific writer, Guest has displayed a talent for portraying the emotional ups and downs of average American teens, and her protagonistsm—likeable, sensitive teenage boysm—have proved popular with readers. "I think all my books have happy endings," the writer explained to People contributor Joanne Kaufman. "I look for people who come face-to-face with challenges and come out stronger on the other side." Noting that adolescence is "a period of time . . . where people are very vulnerable and often don't have much experience to draw on as far as human relationships go," Guest told Barbara Holliday of the Detroit Free Press that, "At the same time they are making some pretty heavy decisions . . . about how they're going to relate to people and how they're going to shape their lives."

Guest was born in 1936 in Detroit, Michigan. While she began writing at a young age, as she remarked on her Web site, "I have been writing all of my lifem—since I was about ten years old, actuallym—in the closet, to the emotional moment, sticking reams of paper in drawers, never finishing anything." Though she studied English at the University of Michigan, Guest felt too intimidated to take any writing courses. She eventually earned a degree in education, graduating in 1958, and got married that same year.

From Teacher to Parent to Writer

During the 1960s Guest taught in Michigan elementary schools and began raising a family. Not until she was in her mid-thirties, when her three sons were of school age, did she begin devoting a lot of time to writing fiction. She told Carol Kleiman in the Houston Post that she regards her time spent as a homemaker to be valuable: "I don't believe all those years of parenting, PTA, driving, committees were wasted. They were not unproductive years. I was serving my apprenticeship. In my mind, I was writing, preparing."

Guest gained experience writing for newspapers when the family moved to Illinois, but she disliked the constraints of journalism. Eventually she attended a writing seminar and was encouraged to start taking her fiction seriously. She decided to expand one of her early short stories because she remained interested in the characters and desired to complete a larger project. The finished work became Ordinary People,.

Guest sent her manuscript to Viking Press without the customary letter of introduction or outline. Beating considerable odds, the manuscript was rescued from the glut of uninvited manuscripts known as the "slush pile" to become the first unsolicited book published by Viking in twenty-seven years. Guest described her visit to Viking after the book was accepted to Andrea Wojack of the Detroit News: "When I walked into the office of Mimi Jones, my editor, I saw a few books stacked in the corner. I asked if that was the famous slush pile. Mimi shook her head and opened a nearby door. There it was, just stacks and stacks and piles of envelopes, boxes, all sizes and shapes imaginable! . . . I probably would have thought twice about sending mine in if I had known what all I had to compete with."

In choosing to write about an average suburban family, Guest opposed the idea that a book should focus on unusual or extraordinary characters or settings. "I always grew up with the feeling that a majority of the people in the world were like me and the people I know," she remarked in Family Circle. "And so, maybe at the beginning of my writing career, I thought, 'This old stuff. Nobody wants to read about this.'" She came to the conclusion, though, that people do enjoy reading about characters like themselves. Prior to publication, Viking expressed reservations about the book's title. Guest tenaciously defended her original choice in letters to her editor and the publisher that were later quoted in part in Publishers Weekly: "It says exactly what I want to say about these people. It is not meant ironically at all; these are ordinary people to whom something extraordinary happenedm—as it does to people every day."

Publishes Ordinary People

Ordinary People relates the ordeal of the Jarrett family, following seventeen-year-old Conrad Jarrett's unsuccessful attempt at suicide. Plagued by guilt for surviving a boating accident which took his brother's life a year earlier, Conrad has become crippled by depression and anxiety. Opening with the teen's return from an eight-month stay in a mental hospital, the book goes on to chronicle Conrad's counseling sessions with his warmhearted psychiatrist and his gradual progression toward health. Meanwhile, Conrad's desperate act forces his father to recognize the absence of communication in the family and the severity of his son's depression. Conrad's mother, Beth, by contrast, seems angry with her son, perhaps viewing his suicide attempt as an effort to make her miserable. Indeed, Beth's aloof character has been perplexing to many readers. Dorothea D. Braginsky, for example, wrote in Psychology Today that Conrad's mother's views are "barely articulated. . . . Guest has given her no voice, no platform for expression. We never discover what conflicts, fears, and aspirations exist behind her cool, controlled façade." Beth's inability to openly share in her husband's grief and concernm—and her refusal to admit that their lives are not entirely under controlm—leads to the breakup of the Jarretts' marriage. "Failure is finally what Ordinary People is about," asserted Melvin Maddocks in Time. "It may be Guest's ultimate irony that the older brother's drowning and Conrad's attempted suicide are only symbols for spiritual deathm—for a thousand subtle methods of neglect and undernourishment by means of which loved ones kill and are killed within the family circle." In spite of this, the book's ending has a positive side because Conrad comes to understand and forgive himself and his mother.

While Ordinary People met with widespread praise, there were some critics who took exception to aspects of Guest's work. For example, New York Review of Books contributor Michael Wood deemed the conclusion improbable. "Here the family is broken up, but everyone is on the way to emotional health, because they have understood their weaknesses," the critic remarked. "But then the whole novel is subtly implausible in this sense, not because one doesn't believe in the characters or in Conrad's recovery, but because problems just pop up, get neatly formulated, and vanish. . . . 'I think I just figured something out,' Conrad says to his psychiatrist, and he has. It's a milestone on the road to reason."

Lore Dickstein commended Guest in the New York Times Book Review for her "passionate honesty and sensitivity," while other critics appreciated Guest's restraint. Considering the book's somber subject, Sandra Salmans remarked in the Times Literary Supplement that the novel "could easily turn maudlin, and Judith Guest is to be congratulated for avoiding that trap." Many reviewers considered Conrad a most attractive and credible character. Salmans called him "unusually likeable," and Dickstein asserted, "Guest portrays Conrad not only as if she has lived with him on a daily basism—which I sense may be truem—but as if she had gotten into his head. The dialogue Conrad has with himself, his psychiatrist, his friends, his family all rings true with adolescent anxiety."

Guest's main interests in her debut novel were communication and depression; the author herself has suffered from depression and in fact, following her book's publication she sought psychological help. "In my own life, therapy's been really important," she told Bruce Cook in Chicago Tribune Magazine. "I had some tough sessions after 'Ordinary People'm—after all that happened to me. It helped me out of that state I got into. The way I feel about therapy is that all of us are working with inadequate tools to help ourselves. So it's great to be able to go to someone and get the right tools to help. That's what a therapist does. In my case, he showed me how I was working against myself."

From Page to Screen

Guest had to adjust to the pressures of fame as a result of the phenomenal success of Ordinary People. A private person, she finds interviews draining and intrusive, and she has shunned celebrity. She did, however, risk further media attention to collaborate with director and actor Robert Redford on a film version of her book. "I was advised by a lot of writer friends to stay as far away from the project as I could," Guest told Blades in the Detroit News. "They said, 'It'll just break your heartm—take the money and run.' But I like to experience things first hand, and I figured the first time I got burned I'd back away." Then making the transition from actor to director, Redford chose Ordinary People for his first film directing venture. He sent Guest a note complimenting the book and requested her input in making a feature film. "I received the letter and was absolutely thrilled with his comments. Naturally, I told my friends and family about it. My mother wanted to know if the letter was for real," Guest was quoted as saying by Wojack in the Detroit News. During the filming process, Guest reviewed all drafts of the screenplay and was encouraged to provide feedback, much of which was incorporated.

Guest was particularly pleased with actress Mary Tyler Moore's portrayal of the book's most complex character: Beth Jarrett. According to Guest, Moore" brought a complexity to the character that I wish I'd gotten into the book," as she told Blades in the Detroit News. "I fought with that character for a long time, trying to get her to reveal herself, and I finally said this is the best I can do. When I saw Mary in the movie, I felt like she'd done it for me." Ordinary People won the Academy Award for best film in 1980.

The enormous success of her first novel made writing the second a daunting undertaking for Guest. Eventually she overcame her fear and completed Second Heaven, which was published in 1982. As in Ordinary People, the novel focuses on a teenage boy confronting serious problems. In this case, Gale Murray adopts an apathetic attitude as a way to conceal the pain inflicted by his abusive, self-righteously religious father. After a brutal beating, Gale leaves home and finds shelter with the newly divorced Catherine "Cat" Holzman. Gale enlists the aid of divorce lawyer Michael Atwood, who accepts Gale's case partly as a favor to Cat. In surmounting their own problems in order to help Gale, Cat and Mike begin to fall in love with each other.

The subject of religion, particularly the harmful fanaticism of Gale's father, pervades Second Heaven. For the novel, Guest set herself to answer the question "why some people who see themselves as religious people are really at bottom very self-righteous, intolerant people," as she explained in Family Circle. "In some ways, this book is about my feeling of organized religion versus your own personal religionm—about people forcing truths on you that you really have to learn for yourself."

An Exploration of Child Abuse

In researching her second novel, Guest visited a juvenile detention center and discussed child abuse with a family court judge. "Guest has done her homework and got the legal aspects of the problem right. More important, she understands precisely the victim's psychology," asserted Peter S. Prescott in Newsweek. Once again able to create believable protagonists and plots that most readers could relate to, Second Heaven earned praise from critics and earned Guest a legion of new fans. In a review of the novel, Anne Tyler wrote in the Detroit News that the novel's young protagonist stands as "one of the most believable adolescents in recent fictionm—surly, touching, tough, desperate to make some sense of his life, but [al]so guarded." "There are elements in his characterization that are positively brilliant," Tyler continued: "little quirks that first surprise us and then, on second thought, seem absolutely right." Similarly, Chicago Tribune Magazine contributor Cook declared that the "characters are so true to life that at times they seem to jump right up from the page."

The similarities between her two novels not surprisingly resulted in comparisons. While Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley enjoyed Second Heaven, the critic also viewed Guest's second novel as more forced, or artificial, than Ordinary People. Yardley decided that "neither contrivance nor familiarity can disguise the skill and most particularly the sensitivity with which Guest tells her story. . . . She is an extraordinarily perceptive observer of the minutiae of domestic life, and she writes about them with humor and affection."

Changes Format in Third Novel

Guest joined fellow writer Rebecca Hill to coauthor Killing Time in St. Cloud, which focuses on adult rather than teen characters. As Michael Dorris commented in Chicago's Tribune Books, the novel "represents a true blend of skills and voices; a product of subtle, generous effort, it is a departure from any of Guest['s] or Hill's previous work." Killing Time in St. Cloud is a suspenseful murder mystery set in a small town in Minnesota. When a young girl named Molly is killed, the townspeople assume local n'erdo-well Nick Uhler had a hand in the crime, but then he too turns up dead. All are shocked when Molly's uncle Simon is revealed to be the murderer, and as more mysteries are uncovered this highly respected physician is found to have been involved in a host of equally unsavory events. On her Web site, Guest noted that Killing Time in St. Cloud tells "how everyone in a small town somehow ends up either knowing everything there is to know about you or else being family." Critics deemed the plot exciting and Simon a chilling villain. Reviewers also praised the coauthors' deft delineation of the intolerance and lack of privacy that are aspects of small-town life. Dorris called the book "a first-rate, beautifully written novel," and added that Guest and Hill "have forged a believable, gritty sense of place."

In 1997, after a break of almost a decade, Guest once again reemerged with Errands. Here she returns to her original focus, and again examines the contemporary American family through the prism of adolescent children in crisis. On her Web site, Guest described Errands as "the flip side of Ordinary People: this is how a family copes with death and comes out the other side whole and at peace." The focus of the novel, the Browner family is embarking on their annual vacation. A likable group, the Brownings seem to be "normal" and without incident until the reader learns that father Keith Browning must begin chemotherapy as soon as the family returns home. When the treatment proves unsuccessful, Keith's wife, Annie, and his three young children, Harry, Jimmy, and Julie, must carry on without him. Life without Keith is a struggle for each of them and they are each in a state of crisis when Jimmy has a dangerous accident that almost blinds him. While the accident is another personal setback for the family, it also forces family members to reach out and support one other, beginning a rebuilding process.

Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Meg Wolitzer admired the "natural cadences and rhythms" spoken by Guest's younger protagonists, but suggested that the adults "never fully come to life" and that overall "the novel, while appealing, seems slightly sketchy and meditative." In contrast,Booklist contributor Brad Hooper noted that "Guest is perfectly realistic in her depictions of family situations; her characters act and react with absolute credibility."

From Fiction to Fact

After another length hiatus, in 2004 Guest published The Tarnished Eye. With this novel she presents a fictionalized version of a real-life murder case that occurred in northern Michigan in 1968. In the work, Sheriff Hugh Dewitt investigates the slaying of six members of an affluent family who were vacationing at their upstate summer home. In a fashion similar to Truman Capote's landmark true-crime novel In Cold Blood, Guest forces readers to make an emotional connection with each of the novel's characters. As Hooper explained in Booklist, she "carefully insinuates the reader into the lives of all the people involved in the case," including the victims, the sheriff, townspeople, and a host of suspects. "I wanted to make this family real to my readers before they realized that they were gone, and before they were able to distance themselves from them," Guest explained on her Web site. The Tarnished Eye received generally strong reviews, a Publishers Weekly critic dubbing it a "tightly paced, gripping thriller [that] is imbued with substance, sensitivity and depth."

As quoted by Hilary Devries in the Houston Post, Guest once stated: "Society teaches people . . . to 'be afraid of their feelings.' There is no substitute for 'self-knowledge.' You have to keep looking inside yourself for answers. You just have to be brave and do it." While Guest peoples her fiction with characters who search for such answers, she also draws on her familiarity with suburban and small-town existence, coloring commonplace settings with her imagination. As Chicago's Tribune Books contributor Harry Mark Petrakis stated, the author "casts light on the problems we often endure in our own lives. That's what the art of storytelling and the craft of good writing are all about."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 8, 1978, Volume 30, 1984.

Novels for Students, Volume 1, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997.

Szabo, Victoria, and Angela D. Jones, The Uninvited Guest: Erasure of Women in "Ordinary People," Popular Press (Bowling Green, OH), 1996.


Book, July-August, 2003, Adam Langer, "Where Are They Now?," pp. 34-41.

Booklist, October 15, 1996, Brad Hooper, review of Errrands, p. 379; March 15, 2004, Brad Hooper, review of The Tarnished Eye, p. 1244.

Chicago Tribune, November 4, 1980.

Chicago Tribune Magazine, October 17, 1982, p. 45.

Detroit Free Press, October 7, 1982.

If you enjoy the works of Judith Guest

If you enjoy the works of Judith Guest, you may also want to check out the following:

Margaret Dickson, Maddy's Song, 1985.

James W. Bennett, I Can Hear the Mourning Dove, 1990.

Steve Hamilton, A Cold Day in Paradise, 1998.

Detroit News, August 17, 1976, p. H7; November 9, 1980; September 26, 1982; October 20, 1982.

English Journal, March, 1978, pp. 18-19.

Entertainment Weekly, February 14, 1997, Vanessa V. Friedman, review of Errands, pp. 56-57.

Family Circle, September 16, 1982, pp. 4, 24.

Horn Book, April, 1983, review of Second Heaven, p. 206.

Houston Post, October 13, 1977, p. BB2; November 14, 1983, p. F6.

Library Journal, May 1, 1976, Victoria K. Musmann, review of Ordinary People, p. 1142; July 1, 1982, Michele M. Leber, review of Second Heaven, p. 1344; April 15, 1983, p. 786; October 15, 1996, review of Errands, p. 90; May 15, 2004, Marianne Fitzgerald, review of The Tarnished Eye, p. 114.

Los Angeles Times, September 21, 1980, p. 32.

Ms., December, 1982.

Newsweek, July 12, 1976; October 4, 1982.

New Yorker, July 19, 1976; November 22, 1982.

New York Review of Books, June 10, 1976.

New York Times, July 16, 1976; October 22, 1982; January 24, 1997.

New York Times Book Review, July 18, 1976; October 3, 1982; January 12, 1997, p. 18.

People, February 10, 1997, Joanne Kaufman, "Family Matters," review of Errands, p. 33.

Psychology Today, August, 1976.

Publishers Weekly, April 19, 1976; September 2, 1983, review of Second Heaven, p. 79; September 2, 1988, Sybil Steinberg, review of Killing Time in St. Cloud, p. 88; September 16, 1996, Judy Quinn, "Judith Guest Is Back," p. 18; October 28, 1996, Sybil S. Steinberg, review of Errands, p. 56; May 17, 2004, review of The Tarnished Eye, p. 34.

Redbook, November, 1980, pp. 136, 188, 190, 192; January, 1997, Judy Koutsky, review of Errands, p. G4.

Saturday Review, May 15, 1976.

School Library Journal, September, 1976, Jay Daly, review of Ordinary People, p. 143; December, 1982, Priscilla Johnson and Ron Brown, review of Second Heaven, p. 87; August, 1983, Hazel Rochman, review of Ordinary People, pp. 26-27; July, 1997, Carol Clark, review of Errands, p. 116.

Sunday Times (London, England), February 16, 2003, Marianne Gray, review of Ordinary People, p. 29.

Time, July 19, 1976; October 25, 1982.

Times Literary Supplement, February 4, 1977, p. 121.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), October 3, 1982; November 20, 1988, p. 5; February 2, 1997, review of Errands, p. 9.

Village Voice, July 19, 1976.

Voice of Youth Advocates, February, 1983, review of Second Heaven, p. 36; August, 1997, review of Errands, p. 184.

Washington Post, September 22, 1982.


Judith Guest Home Page, (June 15, 2005).*