Guest, Judith (Ann) 1936-

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GUEST, Judith (Ann) 1936-

PERSONAL: 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., 1958.

ADDRESSES: Home—4600 West 44th St., Edina, MN 55424. Agent—Patricia Karlan Agency, 3575 Cahvenga Blvd., Suite 210, Los Angeles, CA 90068; c/o Author Mail, Viking/Penguin, 375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014.

CAREER: Writer. Employed as teacher in public grade schools in Royal Oak, MI, 1964, Birmingham, MI, 1969, and Troy, MI, 1975.

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

AWARDS, HONORS: Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, University of Rochester, 1977, for Ordinary People.


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

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

The Mythic Family: An Essay, Milkweed Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1988.

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

Errands (novel), Ballantine (New York, NY), 1996.

Icewalk (essay), Minnesota Center for the Book Arts (Minneapolis, MN), 2001.

Also author of a screenplay adaptation of Second Heaven and of three short stories by Carol Bly, titled Rachel River, Minnesota. Contributor to periodicals, including The Writer.

ADAPTATIONS: Ordinary People was filmed by Paramount in 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. Errands were adapted for audiobook.

SIDELIGHTS: Judith Guest achieved startling success with her debut novel Ordinary People, and continued writing novels with similar themes. Contrary to custom, Guest sent the manuscript to Viking Press without a preceding letter of inquiry and without the usual plot synopsis and outline that many publishing houses require. The manuscript was read by an editorial assistant who liked it well enough to send Guest a note of encouragement and pass the story along to her superiors for a second reading. Months passed. Then, in the summer of 1975, when Guest was in the midst of moving from Michigan to Minnesota, came the word she had been waiting for: Viking would be "honored" to publish Ordinary People, the first unsolicited manuscript they had accepted in twenty-six years. Guest's book went on to become not only a best-selling novel—selected by four book clubs, serialized in Redbook, and sold to Ballantine for paperback rights for $635,000—but also an award-winning film that captured the 1980 Oscar for best movie of the year. Since that time, Guest has published several other novels, including the family stories Second Heaven, and Errands, and the mystery Killing Time in St. Cloud.

The story of a teenage boy's journey from the brink of suicide back to mental health, Ordinary People shows the way that unexpected tragedy can destroy even the most secure of families. Seventeen-year-old Conrad Jarrett, son of a well-to-do tax lawyer, appears to have everything: looks, brains, manners, and a good relationship with his family. But when he survives a boating accident that kills his older brother, Conrad sinks into a severe depression, losing touch with his parents, teachers, friends, and just about everyone else in the outside world. His attempt to kill himself by slashing his wrists awakens his father to the depth of his problems, but it also cuts Conrad off from his mother—a compulsive perfectionist who believes that his bloody suicide attempt was intended to punish her. With the help of his father and an understanding analyst, Conrad slowly regains his equilibrium. "Above all," commented New York Review of Books contributor Michael Wood, "he comes to accept his mother's apparent failure to forgive him for slashing his wrists, and his own failure to forgive her for not loving him more. It is true that she has now left his father, because he seemed to be cracking up under the strain of his concern for his son, but Conrad has learned 'that it is love, imperfect and unordered, that keeps them apart, even as it holds them somehow together.'"

"The form, the style of the novel dictate an ending more smooth than convincing," according to Melvin Maddocks in Time. "As a novelist who warns against the passion for safety and order that is no passion at all, Guest illustrates as well as describes the problem. She is neat and ordered, even at explaining that life is not neat and ordered." While Newsweek's Walter Clemons thought that Ordinary People "solves a little too patly some of the problems it raises," he also allowed that "the feelings in the book are true and unforced. Guest has the valuable gift of making us like her characters; she has the rarer ability to move a toughened reviewer to tears." Village Voice contributor Irma Pascal Heldman also had high praise for the novel, writing that "Guest conveys with sensitivity a most private sense of life's personal experiences while respecting the reader's imagination and nurturing an aura of mystery. Without telling all, she illuminates the lives of 'ordinary people' with chilling insight."

Guest's insights into her male protagonist are particularly keen, according to several reviewers, including Lore Dickstein, who wrote in the New York Times Book Review: "Guest portrays Conrad not only as if she has lived with him on a daily basis—which I sense may be true—but as if she has gotten into his head. The dialogue Conrad has with himself, his psychiatrist, his friends, his family, all rings true with adolescent anxiety. This is the small, hard kernel of brilliance in the novel." But while acknowledging that Guest's male characters are well-defined, several reviewers believe that Beth, the mother, is not fully developed. "The mother's point of view, even though she is foremost in the men's lives, is barely articulated," wrote Dorothea D. Braginsky in Psychology Today. "We come to know her only in dialogue with her husband and son, and through their portrayals of her. For some reason Guest has given her no voice, no platform for expression. We never discover what conflicts, fears and aspirations exist behind her cool, controlled facade."

Guest herself expressed similar reservations about the character, telling a Detroit News contributor that Beth is "pretty enigmatic in the novel. The reader might have been puzzled by her." But Guest also believes that Mary Tyler Moore's portrayal of Beth Jarrett in the film adaptation of the novel did much to clarify the character. "[Mary Tyler Moore] just knocks me out," Guest told John Blades in a Chicago Tribune interview. "She's a terrific actress, a very complex person, and she brought a complexity to the character that I wish I'd gotten into the book. 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."

Guest was also pleased with the movie's ending, which was more inconclusive than the book's ending. "The more things get left open-ended the better," Guest told Blades. "If you tie everything into a neat little bow, people walk out of the theater and never give it another thought. If there's ambiguity, people think about it and talk about it." She believes director Robert Redford's sensitive presentation "leaves the viewer to his own conclusions," which is how it should be.

In 1982 Guest published Second Heaven, a novel that shares many of its predecessor's concerns. "Again, a damaged adolescent boy stands at the center of the story; again, the extent of his wounds will not be immediately apparent," noted Peter S. Prescott in Newsweek. "Again, two adults with problems of their own attempt to save the boy from cooperating in his own destruction." In an interview with former Detroit Free Press book editor Barbara Holliday, Guest reflected on her fascination with what she calls this "crucial" period known as adolescence: "It's 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. At the same time they are making some pretty heavy decisions, not necessarily physical but psychological decisions about how they're going to relate to people and how they're going to shape their lives. It seems to me that if you don't have sane sensible people around you to help, there's great potential for making irrevocable mistakes."

The way that signals can be misinterpreted, leading to a breakdown in communication between people who may care deeply for one another, is a theme of both her novels and a topic she handles well, according to novelist Anne Tyler, who is also known for her ability to accurately portray human relationships. "[Guest] has a remarkable ability to show the unspoken in human relationships—the emotions either hidden or expressed so haltingly that they might as well be hidden, the heroic self-control that others may perceive as icy indifference," Tyler wrote in the Detroit News.

In Second Heaven, it is Gale Murray, abused son of a religiously fanatic father and an ineffectual mother, who hides his feelings behind a facade of apathy. After a brutal beating from his father, Gale runs away from home, seeking shelter with Catherine "Cat" Holzmann, a recently divorced parent with problems of her own. When Gale's father tries to have his son institutionalized, Cat enlists the aid of Mike Atwood, a disenchanted lawyer who is falling in love with Cat. He takes on the case, largely as a favor to her. According to Norma Rosen in the New York Times Book Review, "Cat and Michael must transcend their personal griefs and limits in order to reach out for this rescue. In saving another's life they are on the way to saving their own."

Because of the story's clear delineation of good versus evil and its melodramatic courtroom conclusion, Second Heaven struck some critics as contrived. "Everything in the book is so neat and polished; so precisely timed and calibrated," suggested New York Times reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "the way the newly divorced people dovetail, conveniently providing a surrogate mother and a fatherly counselor for battered Gale Murray....The reader continually gets the feeling that Mrs. Guest is working with plumb line and level and trowel to build her airtight perpendicular walls of plot development." Or, as Rosen puts it: "On the one hand there are the clear evils of control, rules, order. They are associated with inability to love, fanaticism, brutality. Clutter and lack of organization are good....Yet in the context of the author's antineatness and anticontrol themes, the technique of the novel itself appears at times to be almost a subversion: the quick-march pace, the click-shot scenes, the sensible serviceable inner monologues unvaried in their rhythms."

While acknowledging the book's imperfections, Jonathan Yardley maintained in the Washington Post that "the virtues of Second Heaven are manifold, and far more consequential than its few flaws.... 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." Concluded Tribune Books contributor Harry Mark Petrakis: "By compassionately exploring the dilemmas in the lives of Michael, Catherine, and Gale, Judith Guest 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."

With Errands Guest continues to examine the contemporary American family with adolescent children in crisis, though this novel was based in fact. Guest was inspired by her own family history as recounted in a diary that told of her grandfather's premature death and the fate of his widow and five children in Detroit during the 1920s. As Guest told Joanne Kaufman of People, she did not simply want to base the story on her ancestors, who repressed their feelings. "I needed to make it my story. . . . I never heard about the sadness and anger you feel when you lose your father at age ten, as my father did," she said, adding, "I wanted to write a story to find out what it felt like."

Thus readers first meet the Browner family of Errands, a word that has the more serious connotation of "mission," as they begin their annual vacation. They are a likable, normal family except that Keith, the father, must begin chemotherapy as soon as they return. But the treatment is not successful; his wife, Annie, and 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. But Jimmy's accident requires them to support each other and begins the rebuilding process for this troubled family. The work caught the attention of reviewers. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Meg Wolitzer admired the "natural cadences and rhythms" spoken by the children but suggested that the adults "never fully come to life" and that overall "the novel, while appealing, seems slightly sketchy and meditative." Although Entertainment Weekly's Vanessa V. Friedman found the characters stock treatments and "unsympathetic" at that, others praised Guest's portrayal of family dynamics during a crisis. For example, Booklist's Brad Hooper noted that "Guest is perfectly realistic in her depictions of family situations; her characters act and react with absolute credibility." And Sheila M. Riley of Library Journal declared Errands "true, touching, and highly recommended."



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

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


Billboard, January 18, 1997, Trudi Miller Rosenblum, review of Errands (audio version), p. 74.

Booklist, October 15, 1996, Brad Hooper, review of Errrands, p. 379.

Chicago Tribune, November 4, 1980.

Detroit Free Press, October 7, 1982, review of Second Heaven.

Detroit News, September 26, 1982, review of Second Heaven; October 20, 1982, review of Second Heaven.

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

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, "Lorain, Ohio, Public Library Invites Judith Guest for Tea," p. 786; October 15, 1996, Sheila M. Riley, review of Errands, p. 90; March 1, 1997, Carolyn Alexander and Mark Annichiarico, review of Errands (audio version), p. 118.

Ms., December, 1982, review of Second Heaven.

Newsweek, July 12, 1976, review of Ordinary People; October 4, 1982, review of Second Heaven.

New Yorker, July 19, 1976, review of Ordinary People; November 22, 1982, review of Second Heaven.

New York Review of Books, June 10, 1976, review of Ordinary People.

New York Times, July 16, 1976, review of Ordinary People; October 22, 1982, review of Second Heaven; January 12, 1997, Meg Wolitzer, "Ordinary Loss," review of Errands, p. 18.

New York Times Book Review, July 18, 1976, review of Ordinary People; October 3, 1982, review of Second Heaven; January 12, 1997, Meg Wolitzer, "Ordinary Loss," review of Errands, p. 18.

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

Psychology Today, August, 1976, review of Ordinary People.

Publishers Weekly, April 19, 1976, review of Ordinary People; October 28, 1996, Sybil S. Steinberg, review of Errands, p. 56.

Redbook, January, 1997, Judy Koutsky, "Red Hot Books," review of Errands, p. G-4.

Saturday Review, May 15, 1976, review of Ordinary People.

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, "Bringing Boys Books Home," 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, review of Ordinary People; October 25, 1982, review of Second Heaven.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), October 3, 1982, review of Second Heaven.

Village Voice, July 19, 1976, review of Ordinary People.

Washington Post, September 22, 1982, review of Second Heaven.

Washington Post News Feed, February 24, 1997, Reeve Lindbergh, review of Errands, p. D4.*