Love Story, by Erich Segal

Maybe you’re having a gloomy day and you’re already predisposed to depressing thoughts. Or perhaps you read a book that plucks your heartstrings like an instrument and you don’t know whether to scream or cry. That was me after reading the simple, albeit kind of corny novel Love Story, by Erich Segal.

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I found this book at the famous Half-Price Books Mega Sale in Indianapolis last fall, and didn’t think to buy it until I realized I hadn’t read a romance in a long time. I’m kind of indifferent to love stories, since they’re usually pretty manipulative and their main goal seems to be making you cry. And yet, I keep coming back to them because somehow or other, they draw me in. It’s shameful if a book manipulates its characters to result in a cheap cry, and yet, you cannot fault a writer for making you care enough about the characters to make you feel on such a level. And yet, if a writer doesn’t do good enough with their characters, you can see those scenes coming and roll your eyes at them…

Love Story involves Oliver Barrett IV and Jenny Cavilleri, two different people who meet at college in the mid 1960’s, fall in love, and get married. I think it’s incredible how well Segal showed the growth and progression of these two idealistic youths—Oliver especially—into hardened adults in so little time. Oliver starts out as a cocky athlete madly in love with the bespectacled academic named Jenny, and when he has to bust his butt to support his wife, he learns very quickly what it takes to grow up. That’s kind of the best thing, but also sort of the problem, with this book. It only chronicles five years in Oliver and Jenny’s lives, and while you do get to know them well, it hardly feels like enough time to create a love story for the ages.

Some people call Love Story the Romeo and Juliet of the twentieth century, but it’s so much more than impetuous young love bringing two families together. In fact, the love story has nothing to do with rebellion or hormones running wild. Oliver and Jenny’s love feels true, and they do learn some serious lessons about love and family during their struggles. But again, it’s only five years. I think of a great love story, and I think of decades of struggle and discovery, cultivating in a fond, dramatic goodbye.

Now I know that not every story needs years and years to feel true, as some only take place over a day. But I think the story would have been more impactful if we had seen Oliver and Jenny learn more than just making a living and dealing with in-laws. I would have liked to see them deal with children or changing careers, or something that would really, truly test their love. The other big obstacle is whether or not Oliver can swallow his pride and reconcile with his stone-faced banker father after a college fallout. So it seems like we’re getting a little lick, but not a whole, satisfying bowl of conflict, if you catch my drift.

Essentially, the book feels like a snapshot of a story, and not a whole, complete one. The tragedy of the book did not have to be what it was, which could have left room open to how Oliver and Jenny would have gotten on after. Without going into spoilers, the story ends with a typical love story copout, and I won’t say which, but I feel like it could have ended differently and gotten a greater emotional response.

Formulas work, I understand that. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl—they happen all the time in fiction. But not every love story has to follow the same tropes that worked in most stories of the same kind. I would hate for every author to believe that, in order to write a love story, they have to write a tear-jerker moment, because if the reader cries, it means your book is good, right? Well, to an extent. Like I said, if a reader cries, it means your writing has connected them to the characters. But for goodness sakes, does the genre need one for every single story…?

Sorry, tangent over. The point is that this story could have made better plot choices without feeling like it had to follow a genre formula. The title itself, Love Story, sounds like a general sum-up of the genre, like the author couldn’t think of anything better to write, so he just settled for that.

That doesn’t mean the book is bad. It’s a short book, and it is very easy to read. The dialogue is fun, and the characters are relatable. I can see a little why it has such a following in its genre, but it could have painted a broader picture of its main couple’s relationship.

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