Ordinary People is set in Lake Forest, Illinois, during the 1970s. The action focuses on the Jarrett family--Calvin and Beth and their son Conrad. Before the action of the book begins, there was a second Jarrett son--Buck--who was killed in a boating accident over a year before the novel begins. After the death of Buck, Conrad became deeply troubled, blaming himself. He tried to commit suicide by slashing his wrists; his attempt failed when Calvin found him, before he died, in the bathtub. After the attempt, Conrad was hospitalized. He went through therapy and befriended Karen, a girl his age who had also tried to kill herself.
The action of the book begins a month after Conrad is released from the hospital. While he is physically cured, he is by no means emotionally cured, and at the request of his father, he begins to see a psychiatrist, Dr.
Berger. He tells Berger that he doesn't think highly of psychiatry, but he wants Berger to help him gain more control over others so that he can make his father stop worrying about him. Conrad goes back to school, where he has experienced a severe academic downturn ever since Buck's death. He is a junior, and he is a member of the swimming team. However, he feels he is becoming alienated from even some of his best friends, such as Joe Lazenby, and ends up becoming more and more isolated. He decides to quit the swimming team, although he does not tell his parents about the decision until a month later. He spends his time instead in the library after school. He even goes out for a Coke with his old friend Karen at one point, and he sees that she is doing much better. As the year progresses,