Monday, May 7, 2012

Family Interrupted (post by Joy Preble)

Ordinary People by Judith Guest (1976) is one book that I think of when I contemplate the role of parents in YA. This brilliant novel was not originally marketed as YA, although I think if it were to come out today it would be. And it’s probably best known for the excellent film adaptation that came out in 1980, directed by Robert Redford and filmed not far from where I grew up and went to college at Northwestern in Chicago’s affluent northern suburbs.

 The novel is the story of the Jarrett family, wealthy—perfect, wanting for nothing—whose world and lives are fractured by the death of their oldest son Buck in a boating accident. The younger son, Conrad – not as popular, not as athletic, not the golden boy—survived and his resulting guilt has caused a spiraling depression and a suicide attempt, all before the book opens. Ordinary People is Conrad’s story mostly – of his fall and his redemption and healing, his ultimate understanding that it was okay to be stronger than his brother and that people do the best they can.

 But when I think of this novel, it’s also the parents that I think of, particularly Beth Jarrett the mother (played with ice cold brilliance by Mary Tyler Moore in the film) who ultimately cannot exist in the imperfect world created by her older son’s death. It’s not that she doesn’t love Conrad. It’s that she can’t love him enough, can’t get beyond either the Buck’s death or Conrad’s survival. She cannot – for reasons both nature and nurture—live with a damage, imperfect family, a younger son who sees a psychiatrist, who was hospitalized after his suicide attempt. Like a cracked plate (and the film has a great scene with exactly that) that can’t be glued together, Beth’s own sharp-edged pieces cannot be mended. She cannot be the mother than Conrad needs. It is both her failure and the family dynamic of perfection that in large part informs Conrad’s personality. It is a tragedy writ both large and small, that one change unearths these weaknesses and nothing can ever be the same.

 As a writer, I tend toward stories of flawed, imperfect characters with equally flawed, imperfect families. My mc’s do not exist in a void. Even though they are the main focus, their parents’ roles and own stories inform how my mc’s behave, how they feel about themselves, what they want. Other things do this as well: school, society, peers. But even when relegated to the background or largely non-present in the story, the people who raised my characters do have an impact. And I think it’s the case in so many books and movies and tv shows that I enjoy. What the parents did or didn’t do; what they see or choose not to see – it’s all pretty crucial.

Your thoughts?

8 comments:

  1. Couldn't agree more, Joy--as humans, we're ALL flawed, whether we're a parent or child, young, middle-aged, senior...What's really interesting in a book is watching flawed people interact and try to climb out of a conundrum.

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    1. Exactly! It's the flaws that make us fascinating. And yeah, I like nothing better than watching a character struggle against his/her flaws and faults. In fact, my guardian angel in next year's THE SWEET DEAD LIFE returns with many of his faults still firmly intact. :0

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  2. Yes! Thank you for this Joy. I completely agree with you. I appreciate the YA lit out there that do touch on relationships with parents/family.

    Because, of course, our families and parents are the biggest shapers of our character, whether we have good or bad relationships with them.

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    1. I've thought about this a lot... the DREAMING ANASTASIA series is really all about family - dysfunctional and kind of crazy, but family.

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  3. I think that the family dynamic is really interesting to read (and write about). I think that learning how to deal with the fact that our parents aren't perfect is something that we can all relate to.

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    1. Definitely. I find how people get along in their family units to be endlessly fascinating -- including the families we build for ourselves with friends.

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  4. I seldom like movies anywhere near as much as they books they're based on, but this was an exception--a movie I thought was excellent.

    And I agree about parents--shortly after I have main characters who are YA, I have to ask: So what's their family situation? Who are their parents? Do they have siblings?

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    1. I agree. I adore this movie equally with the book if not maybe a little better.

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