The novel begins with the line, "To have a reason to get up in the morning, it is necessary to possess a guiding principle." The narrator mentions bumper stickers as a means of expressing what that principle can be for different people. As the story begins, Conrad Jarrett, a high school student without a guiding principle, is lying on his bed in the morning, trying to resist getting up, thinking about the different things he must do: brush his teeth, wash his face, and get dressed. We learn later that he has been home for a month after spending time in a hospital to recover after a suicide attempt. He gets up, thinking about how his doctor, Dr. Crawford, told him he would have some bad days. He begins to get ready to begin his day in school, knowing that "everything will fall into place, it always does." He notices in the mirror that his face is still plagued by a strange white rash. His hair, which he had cut off with a pair of scissors, is beginning to grow back. He thinks that he may be in a recovery "phase" of his life. Nevertheless, he thinks that he does not have his own "bumper sticker"--a life purpose--nor does he have any motivation to get him through each day, although he does recall a time when he did.
As Conrad lies in bed thinking, Calvin Jarrett and his wife, Beth Jarrett are also getting ready to begin the day. Calvin, who was orphaned at the age of 11 and grew up in an orphanage from the time he was four years old, knows that he can never be accused of being a bad father, because he never really had a good example to follow. Calvin is a 42-year-old tax attorney from Detroit. He is concerned about his son's anti-social behavior since his return from the hospital; most of Conrad's old friends do not hang around the house any more. He is concerned about accepting his responsibilities as a father; he is very worried about his son, but he is not sure how much he ought to push Conrad. He questions whether Conrad ought to see a psychiatrist. Although Calvin has always been proud of his rags-to-riches success story, we learn that he is doubting whether he is really happy or really successful. He feels lost.
Calvin, Beth, and Conrad all eat breakfast together. Beth is scheduled to go golfing in the afternoon, and Conrad mentions that he had to do a book report on Jude the Obscure. Calvin asks Conrad how everything is going, suggesting that Conrad try to recover some of the 25 pounds he lost. Although some of the "old" Conrad can be seen in his son, Calvin thinks that Conrad's eyes have been different since his return from the hospital. He also thinks about how Conrad received all As in school the previous year and dominated his swimming team. Calvin insists that Conrad call Dr. Berger, a psychiatrist in Evanston recommended by Dr. Crawford, to inquire into treatment. Although Conrad feels that he needs no psychiatric help, he is very polite to his father.
One of the ways in which Ordinary People is unconventional is its continual use of present tense. Guest writes the novel as though the reader is there as the action is going on, watching the events occur as they happen. This style has several advantages. First, it is perhaps better suited to such a highly psychological novel, which frequently dips into a stream-of-consciousness narrative told through the eyes of Conrad (these first-person segments are usually denoted by italics). Second, Guest may feel that present tense is better suited to exploring the role of the past within the present. Because so many of the events of the novel are strongly influenced by events of the past, most notably Buck's death, present-tense narrative may allow Guest greater flexibility in her moves between the past and the present of the novel. Finally, present tense prevents the novel from feeling dated. Although the events of the novel occur in the 1970s, present tense augments the universal feeling of the novel by making it seem like the events are currently occurring.
Guest is adept at using her style to show rather than tell the reader. For instance, rather than stating that Conrad has become a bad student, Guest uses present-tense mode to put the reader inside his mind: "A thousand-word book report due Wednesday in English lit. The book has not been read. A test over the first six chapters in U.S. History. A surprise quiz in trig, long overdue." The reader sees Conrad's academic situation from Conrad's perspective, and we infer from this information that Conrad does not get much work done. This is a more elegant style than if Guest were to tell us flat-out that Conrad does not do much schoolwork.
While reading any novel, it is usually a good idea to pay attention to the title. Notice the lengths Guest goes to make everything in this book "ordinary." The Jarretts live in an ordinary suburb. The novel opens on an ordinary day. The friends of the family appear to be ordinary people. And, from an outside perspective, the Jarrett family has been a particularly extraordinary family since the death of Buck and the suicide attempt of Conrad. Guest thus juxtaposes the mundane side of American life with dark, morbid undertones. There is a long tradition of this technique in American literature--such novels as Main Street and Winesburg, Ohio jump to mind. Guest, like many authors before her, develops a type of suburban gothic, in which the most common people are beset with profound tragedies and psychological concerns.