How do you explain the popularity of a novel that made people cry oceans of tears all over the world? Two words may help: Love and Story. Put them together, and you have Love Story, the 1970 bestseller by Erich Segal that sold over twenty-one million copies and was translated into twenty-three languages. It is the tragic story of Jennifer Cavilleri and Oliver Barrett IV, young lovers at Harvard who face being disowned by the Barrett family if they choose to marry, which they do, of course. Jenny supports Oliver through law school only then to succumb to leukemia's untimely clutches. The tragedy teaches everyone a lesson, most importantly Oliver's father, as he comes around to offer his help to Oliver (one minute too late). Love Story was plagued by indecisive reviews; some detested the tale, some adored it, some felt both extremes. But, as Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in his New York Times review of the novel in 1970, "Nevertheless, about two-thirds of the way through, a lump forms in the throat and starts growing until it feels like a football coming up sideways." The popularity of Love Story rested strongly on the world's desire for an escape from the sounds of war and destruction in the 1970's. The older crowd connected to the tragic simplicity of the tale, while the younger, more rebellious types related to the constraints of young love and class divisions. Thus, Love Story captivated the minds and souls of everyone.
America was a vulnerable nation in the early seventies. She had recently faced the rough years of the Civil Rights movement, the assassinations of several public figures, and conflicts overseas. In 1965 the United States became intertwined with the war in Vietnam and severed their long and arduous involvement in 1973. The drafting procedures were messy and unwelcome additions to the conflict. People protested and rebelled against the war and the nation's participation. The hippie movement began, and drug abuse was prevalent, perhaps to numb the fear or hurt; the effects of a nation at an undeclared war with itself. In 1970, the year of Segal's publication, the violence was intensifying on television screens all over the United States. Scenes of the distant war brought home the grief and dismay, and worry gripped the nation. Love Story was an oasis of simplicity and euphemism in this time of despair. The novel dripped with the perfect mix of romance and tragedy, and society eagerly soaked up its message.
Reviewers who held lavish praise for Love Story lauded its ability to say so much with so little. Its elementary prose and descriptions provided a window of an hour or two to sit and read the one hundred and thirty page novel. In fact, the paperback version is about as light as the bookmark you will never need in reading the story. The following is an example of Segal's bare, yet entertaining writing style. Here, Oliver first discovers the girl he is to marry, Jennifer Cavilleri:
I got an A minus on the exam, coincidentally the same grade I assigned to Jenny's legs when she first walked from behind that desk. I can't say I gave her costume an honor grade, however; it was a bit too Boho for my taste. I especially loathed that Indian thing she carried for a handbag. Fortunately I didn't mention this, as I later discovered it was of her own design. (Love Story, p. 3)
Segal created a pocket-sized novel that was a breeze to read, and impossible to put down. The crass language, while offending some older readers, provided a way of identity for the younger generations. Also appealing to the adolescent crowd was the theme of rebellion against parental control. Oliver is disinherited by his wealthy father for marrying Jenny, a poor girl of Italian descent, the daughter of a pastry maker. Oliver gives up his free ticket to law school and years of wealth, but he does it all for love. Oliver's father returns to his senses in the end, but only after Jenny's death; a bittersweet ending. This theme provided an innocent look at rebellion, one that younger readers could relate to and perhaps learn from. Love Story
was an undisclosed lesson in true love; pure, sweet, and only a little naughty.
Sex was only faintly touched upon in Love Story
, appeasing the older readers who had perhaps tired of the explicitness of the sixties and early seventies. Welcome restraint was applied, and Segal scored points for the innocence of his tale. The assumed imagination of the reader was put to work, especially in Jenny and Oliver's first encounter with sex.
"Jenny, for Christ's sake, how can I read John Stuart Mill when every single second I'm dying to make love to you?" She screwed up her brow and frowned. "Oh, Oliver, woudja please?" I was crouching by her chair. She looked back into her book. "Jenny-" She closed her book softly, put it down, then placed her hands on the sides of my neck. "Oliver - woudja please."
It all happened at once. Everything. (Love Story, p. 30)
Readers of Love Story
were grateful for Segal's clean-cut writing style. As S. K. Overbeck wrote in a March 9, 1970 Newsweek
book review, Love Story
was "hotly promoted as an antidote to the so-called dirty books strangling America." Segal's appreciation for their imaginations was a token of thanks to the intelligent, older reader, who had long since tired of the bold and sexy previous decades.
The plot involving Oliver and his affluent father, Mr. Oliver Barrett III, also appealed to the older Love Story
reader. The relationship between the two men slowly crumbles throughout the novel, although all is restored by the end. The destruction begins when the young Oliver brings his bride-to-be home to his family. They do not react well to Jenny's background, and the tension rises between father and son. Mr. Barrett III later tells Oliver that he will be disinherited if he and Jenny marry. Oliver chooses to follow his heart and Jenny must work to provide the funds for his law school. Ironically, Oliver must ask his father for money to pay for Jenny's hospital treatments, but Mr. Barrett III does not find out about her illness until it is too late. The bittersweet reunion between Oliver and his father on the last page of the novel brings home Jenny's lasting effects on the world she inhabited for such a brief time. Older readers approved of the father and son conflict that approached full circle resolution, and also appreciated Jenny as the sweet heroine that brought the two together and made Oliver what he was, both monetarily and psychologically. One of Segal's main points in writing Love Story
was to promote the strength and the importance of the parent-child relationship.
Critics who disliked Love Story
had very strong reactions to Segal's style and plot, but many of these same critics also admitted that the book did have a moving finish. It was this ambiguity that also allowed Love Story
to become incredibly popular. It was the book many people hated to love, but they did it anyway. Reviewers recognized the terse prose, the slow pace, and the clean-cut plot, but still they could not help but react to the touching ending, drawn in by the charm of the witty, outspoken Jenny, and Oliver, the unfortunate, young widow. On January 31, 1970, Washington Post
reviewer William McPherson sums up and justifies his conflicted feelings about the novel:
Oh sure, it's easy to find flaws in the novel. The characters tend to be stereotypes, the dialogue is excessively cute, certainly there's nothing profound here. The novel is slick but not too slick, and it's not pretentious, either. It does not try to be more than the title implies, and picking away at what's wrong with it would be a pointless exercise. It can be read in little more than an hour and put aside, leaving a pleasant aftertaste and no uncomfortable thoughts.
The reviewers that detested Love Story
were few and far between, but those that did provided severe accounts of the impressive hatred they felt towards the novel. Most of the loathing was expressed towards the clichéd, predictable plot, and the sickening, bantering but loving exchanges between Jenny and Oliver. In the March 9, 1970 Newsweek
review of Love Story
, S.K. Overbeck sarcastically expressed his distaste for Segal's characters: "Rich Harvard boy ?Ollie' meets poor Radcliffe girl ?Jen.' They smart-mouth their way into love, and continue to regale each other with phony, hard-boiled repartee." However, most reviewers did not find Love Story
quite as torturous as Overbeck, and were able to expose at least a few redeeming qualities.
The success of the Paramount Pictures version of Love Story
added a giant boost to book sales. Segal actually wrote the story as a screenplay first, and then turned the work into a novel at the urging of his agent. In fact, the success of the book can be likened to the fact that it was meant to be a movie; attention getting, dramatic, lively, simple, short, tragic; qualities that denote the perfect movie. The novel, like the movie, did not need to be read closely to capture the full affect. Ali MacGraw, a friend of Segal's, starred as Jenny in the film, and Ryan O'Neal completed the pair, playing Oliver with just the right amount of attitude and soul. The movie was released in December, not quite a year after the book publication. People either watched the movie because they had read the book, or read the book because they had watched the movie, thus increasing profits for the benefactors of Love Story
. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and took one home for Francis Lai's musical score. The more people were exposed to the tale, the more tears were shed, and Love Story
nostalgia swept the nation once again.
The public's reaction to author Erich Segal certainly did not aid sales of Love Story
. At the time of publication, Segal was a professor of classics and comparative literature at Yale. After his rise to fame, Segal became known for his cocky statements, both in the classroom and out. "I cried when I wrote it" was a famous line Segal supposedly used in reference to Love Story
. Another phrase he adored to use in the classroom setting, "The great thing about "Love Story" is..." Those that knew Segal well swore it was not arrogance, but instead it was the excitement of his new wealth talking, and his sudden jump to celebrity status. Yale did not take well to Segal's new lifestyle, denying him tenure soon after the publication.
Segal was extremely hurt and confused by the public's reaction to his comments and his lifestyle. He became more reserved and was increasingly careful about his comments in subsequent interviews. In the summer of 1971, Segal decided to take some time off and escape the public's attention. In an August 1, 1971 Vogue interview given before his departure, Segal stated his dissatisfaction with his students and the press, and talked of his upcoming leave of absence.
Interviewer: Do you know how long you will be gone?
Segal: As far as the public is concerned, maybe forever. As far as the classroom is concerned, ?til I feel my soul is restored enough to go back to
Since his 1970 success, Segal has continued to write best selling novels. He married a British woman named Karen, had several children, and moved his family to London in the early eighties. They fluctuate between their house in London and their house in Connecticut. He has not remained an incredibly public figure, teaching at Yale every fall and remaining fairly recluse otherwise. Segal has learned how to avoid the cruelty of his peers and his students by fleeing the classroom after the publication of a new novel.
remained in the number one slot on the best seller list for about a year after publication. After Segal's disappearance from the public eye in 1971, the novel lost its previous popularity, but only by a small margin. At least five editions of the book have been printed and a cassette version was also created. Love Story
is still popular all over the world, and can be enjoyed even by readers almost three generations removed from its publication date. It is a glance at an old conflict, a feud between families, and much of its appeal lies in its dodging of more pressing world issues. Its lasting universality is a reminder of the appeal of a true, simple love story about two beautiful, young people. Jenny, the underdog, dies and leaves the once wealthy and materialistic Oliver alone to deal with his grief. But with him he carries the lessons provided by his young wife, lessons of love and life. Even today, readers can identify with the trials of young, forbidden love best documented by Segal's pure and sweet Love Story