Love Story (1970) by Erich Segal

Love Story BY Erich Segal. Harper Paperbacks. Paperback, 144 pages. $12.

The cover of Love Story

A chip-on-his shoulder, silver-spooned jock falls for a self-aware, straight-shooting Italiana. I’d never read Love Story or seen the movie, so my reading was firmly stationed in 2011, and I can’t speak about the pleasure first-timers felt when they made the book 1970’s big hit.

I thought I’d find Love Story a little sappy, but I can get behind good sappy; what I didn’t expect was that it would make me mad. What a raw deal for Jenny! She gives up a music scholarship in Paris to get married, supports Oliver through law school, works hard, and, just a couple years after he settles into his job, dies. Her death makes possible the reconciliation between father and son, which feels like the novel’s true love story. As for Oliver and Jenny, the relationship is frustratingly two-dimensional: After he throws a phone across the room, she forgives him with the famous line “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” I don’t get it. Aren’t regret and forgiveness key elements in closeness? Can we not wrong each other? Oliver’s medical treatment of Jenny is even worse: The doctor advises him to withhold from Jenny that she’s sick, even though she could apparently take drugs that would slow her illness. When she finds out, she’s not mad; she just bucks up to be strong for Oliver. She is a facilitator more than a character. She occasionally appears to be three-dimensional, because she has zingy one-liners and is so tough, demanding, and funny, but ultimately her choices are all designed for him.

For all its misleading treatment of its female character, Love Story moves swiftly, packed with lively scenes. (Turns out the story was written first as a screenplay, and then Segal wrote the novel to advertise the film.) If pressed, you might even find the book slightly enlightened about sexual politics. Early portions published in Ladies’ Home Journal suggest it was targeted at women, and Segal seems to be depicting women’s ambivalence at that changing time, torn between an unknown future that was thrilling and frightening and a stifling but comfortable past. Still, for today’s readers, the love story will be too familiar. A martyred woman, a man who finds his feelings—these themes seem far less pressing now. If Segal wrote Love Story for a contemporary audience, it would likely be his heroine who would go tearfully into the future, alone.

Aimee Bender’s novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake has just been published in paperback by Anchor.