Super Sad Tales of Young Love: “Love Story” and “Goodbye, Columbus”

I first happened to read both Erich Segal’s Love Story (1970) and Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus (1959) in the early 1970s, within months of meeting the beautiful young college co-ed who would eventually (and astonishingly) agree to become my wife.

Since Segal’s book and the title novella of Roth’s collection deal with young love, I was especially susceptible to the charms of each book. I had just met and fallen in love with the girl of my dreams, and . . . here were two books that were about young male narrators meeting and falling in love with the girls of their dreams! What were the odds?

erich segal

And, of course, I wasn’t the only young besmitten Baby Boomer who latched onto these books. Love Story, in particular, was a huge smash: the best-selling book of 1970, with well over 20 million copies sold to date.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, was reading the book–it was like The Hunger Games trilogy, The Da Vinci Code, and a couple of Stephen King doorstoppers rolled into one.

The fact that the novel was only 130 or so pages long (and not densely packed pages either; you have to search hard to find a polysyllabic word) meant it could be easily embraced by readers and non-readers of all stripes. When I re-read it again a couple of days ago, I did so in one easy sitting.

Goodbye, Columbus (which included the title novella and five superb short stories), while selling respectably, did not achieve these Olympian heights of readership. It did, however, garner 26-year-old Philip Roth a 1960 National Book Award, much-deserved critical praise, and launched a not too shabby literary career. As Saul Bellow famously wrote, “Goodbye, Columbus is a first book but it is not the book of a beginner.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, both stories were made into successful movies.

Love Story was cannily published on Valentine’s Day, 1970; the film opened to phenomenal box office in December of the same year. It remains perhaps the ultimate date movie. The movie, Goodbye, Columbus, was released in 1969, received a pretty positive critical reception, and did respectable though not remarkable box office.

Piquing my particular interest back then was the fact that both films starred newcomer Ali MacGraw. Ali was a feisty, gorgeous young brunette with soulful brown eyes and killer legs (hey, the girl of my dreams was a feisty, gorgeous young brunette with soulful brown eyes and killer legs! What were the odds?)

ALI MACGRAW

In broad strokes, the stories are strikingly similar: they each deal with a pair of young, mismatched lovers, with clear class barriers complicating their love affair. In Love Story, Oliver Barrett IV is an old money, WASPy, Harvard-legacy kind of fellow (the fictional Barrett Hall in the novel is named after his great-grandfather); Jennifer Cavilleri is a working class girl from Cranston, Rhode Island who is graduating from Radcliffe on scholarship; her father is a colorfully ethnic pastry chef.

In Goodbye, Columbus, Brenda Patimkin is from a wealthy nouveau-riche Jewish family who live in ritzy suburban Short Hills (like Jenny in Love Story, Brenda’s a Radcliffe girl too!), while Neil Klugman is from lower middle class roots: he lives with his hilariously déclassé Aunt Gladys and Uncle Max in a deteriorating Newark.

OK, after all these years, how do these two books hold up?

love story book

LOVE STORY

What can you say about a novel that starts off like this?

What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?

That she was beautiful. And brilliant. That she loved Mozart and Bach. And the Beatles. And me. . . .

As a reader, this doesn’t leave you much wiggle room, does it?

When I first read Love Story I was only nineteen and wasn’t yet the literary snob I was destined–for a while at least–to become. But even back then I realized the book was something of a guilty pleasure. I knew I was reading dreck. But it was entertaining dreck, was dreck that everybody and their brother was reading, and so I dove in with both feet.

I recall with some embarrassment crying my eyes out, I mean bawling like a little girl–both during the reading and when I watched the movie–at the end when poor Jenny succumbs to leukemia.

Roger Ebert provided a witty take on “MacGraw’s Disease” which he defined as, “a movie illness in which the only symptom is that the sufferer grows more beautiful as death approaches.”

Reading it now, I see that Love Story is incredibly calculating and manipulative (in a way I didn’t quite realize back then). It is the highest of “high concept” productions–a term that I don’t believe had yet been coined back in 1970, but which we’ve all come to know and despise.

Jenny, herself, provides a pretty accurate one-line concept statement of the story:

Now she looked me in the eye. And her face was sad.

“Ollie, you’re a preppie millionaire, and I’m a social zero.”

Love Story is always telling you exactly what to think, whom to root for, how to feel. It’s a paint-by-numbers kind of creation. Written not so much by a “writer” as by an assembler: an assembler of clichés, of stereotypes, of big “movie-type” moments that upon inspection don’t add up to a whole lot.

The book doesn’t ring true for a nanosecond. The dialogue can be excruciating. Here is Oliver describing the first time he and Jenny declare their love for each other:

“Do you love me, Jenny?”

She looked at me and wasn’t being evasive when she answered:

“What do you think?”

“Yeah. I guess. Maybe.”

I kissed her neck.

“Oliver?”

“Yes?”

“I don’t just love you . . .”

Oh, Christ, what was this?

“I love you very much, Oliver.”

It’s almost as if Love Story were written by a writer who hated words and sentences and paragraphs. Who actually hated, you know, the whole writing thing: coming up with credible characters, believable settings, plausible motivations.

It feels so rushed and perfunctory: seemingly written by someone who just wanted to get the whole damn thing over with as quickly and effortlessly as possible.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the book is actually a novelization: Segal had originally written the screenplay and submitted it to Paramount executives. They requested that he write a novel-version while the movie was in production in order to drum up interest in the film. Smart call, Paramount.

So, when all is said and done, Love Story isn’t really a novel at all: it’s an extended “treatment.” And I resent, a bit, the fact that I actually took the bait back then and was sucked into the phenomenon that was Love Story.

Worth reading again? Yeah, what the hell. It’ll only take you a few hours and the book just barely crosses over the line into “so bad it’s good” territory, which is a fun place to visit now and again.

goodbye, columbus

GOODBYE, COLUMBUS

I suppose it is a little unfair to do this compare and contrast exercise between Segal and Roth. Like pitting a Little League team against the Boston Red Sox. But as I’ve mentioned the two books are inextricably linked in my mind, and it is kind of fun to see how writers of such different stripes skin their particular cat. So it may be a little unfair, but let’s do it anyway . . .

Remember how vague and bland the beginning of Love Story is? Our first glimpse of Brenda in Goodbye, Columbus is quite the oppositewonderfully specific and detailed. These are the opening sentences of the novella:

The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses. Then she stepped out to the edge of the diving board and looked foggily into the pool; it could have been drained, myopic Brenda would never have known it. She dove beautifully, and a moment later she was swimming back to the side of the pool, her head of short-clipped auburn hair held up, straight ahead of her, as though it were a rose on a long stem.

Neil Klugman, the young narrator, finishes the moment with the best wedgie description in all of literature:

I watched her move off. Her hands suddenly appeared behind her. She caught the bottom of her suit between thumb and index finger and flicked what flesh had been showing back where it belonged. My blood jumped.

There are too many good things about Goodbye, Columbus to detail here. Let’s just say that virtually everything that makes Love Story such a disappointment is a revelation here. The prose is beautiful, descriptive, crisp. Throughout the novella, gorgeous metaphors hang like ripe fruit. (One quick example: “. . .  we were heading through the Lincoln Tunnel, which seemed long and fumier than ever, like Hell with tiled walls.”)

Unlike Love Story–where calling Segal’s creations cardboard characters is doing a disservice to cardboard–the characters in Goodbye, Columbus are well-drawn, unique, and exquisitely memorable.

Here is our introduction to Brenda’s rough-edged father, successful and self-satisfied owner of Newark’s Patimkin Kitchen and Bathroom Sinks:

He was tall, strong, ungrammatical, and a ferocious eater. When he attacked his salad–after drenching it in bottled French dressing–the veins swelled under the heavy skin of his forearm. He ate three helpings of salad . . .

(I love that “ungrammatical.”)

philip roth

One of Roth’s triumphs is his utter nailing of the differences–both overt and subtle–between Neil’s gritty, down-at-the-heels Newark and Brenda’s air-conditioned, sleek suburban milieu.

Roth’s description of Neil’s drive from his Newark home to the leafy suburbs of Short Hills reminds me of the great title sequence that opens each episode of The Sopranos:

Once I’d driven out of Newark, past Irvington and the packed tangle of railroad crossings, switchmen shacks, lumberyards, Dairy Queens, and used-car lots, the night grew cooler. It was, in fact, as though the hundred and eighty feet that the suburbs rose in altitude brought one closer to heaven, for the sun itself became bigger, lower, and rounder, and soon I was driving past long lawns which seemed to be twirling water on themselves, and past houses where no one sat on stoops . . .”

Finally, of course, at the heart of the novel is the complicated, doomed love affair between Neil and Brenda. For Neil, Brenda is the glittering prize: beautiful, wealthy, self-contained. The very symbol of upward mobility and cultural assimilation. She is Neil’s Daisy Buchanan.

Neil is intent on possessing her, but once they have consummated their love, seems almost equally intent on driving her away. Like Gatsby, he is not quite sure what to do with the reality of the woman he loves.

Unlike the reductive clarity of Segal’s novel, the sad end to Neil and Brenda’s love affair is a little mysterious, a little out of focus. Yes, there is the whole business about the diaphragm which Brenda’s mother discovers and which precipitates Neil and Brenda’s final confrontation. But that seems to be just a hint of a deeper murkier disconnection between Neil and Brenda, something that Neil seems incapable of quite articulating:

What was it inside me that had turned pursuit and clutching into love, and then turned it inside out again? What was it that had turned winning into losing, and losing–who knows–into winning? I was sure I had loved Brenda, though standing there, I knew I couldn’t any longer.

So, read Love Story again for laughs. But read Goodbye, Columbus because it remains vibrant, fresh, alive. You may just fall in love again.

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17 Comments

Filed under books, literature

17 responses to “Super Sad Tales of Young Love: “Love Story” and “Goodbye, Columbus”

  1. Criticism by E. Rupprecht is not just criticism; it is great reading in itself. Party on Garth!!!!

    • Thanks for the kind words — I really had fun writing this one. Forgot how (unintentionally) funny Love Story looks from this distance. And how great Goodbye, Columbus remains. (Wish I had had a chance to discuss the other stories in the collection. “Eli, the Fanatic,” in particular, is a fantastic story in its own right.)

      BTW, the next book I’ll be discussing is “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” — so if anyone has any thoughts or memories to share about that one, I’d love to hear your comments.

      • I wept when I read “Cuckoo’s Nest.” I’ll look forward to seeing what you come up with, Erich. (BTW, I also wept at the end of “Love Story,” like you. But I’m prouder of my response to Kesey’s novel.)

      • I haven’t read “Cuckoo’s Nest” in sooo long. (I read it in college for a “Contemporary Fiction” course, but not since.) I’m halfway through it now and I forgot, forgot, forgot how good it is! This is one of those cases where the movie version kind of superseded most of my memories of the book — which is a shame I now realize.

        Love to hear what you think — thanks so much for staying with the blog. It’s been so long since I’ve tried my hand at literary criticism — hearing your smart comments help me stay on course.

  2. Erin Aylor

    Beautifully written! As a child of baby boomers and not a baby boomer myself, I’ve never read either of these books but look forward to checking them out!

    • Although I’ve positioned the blog as being about Baby Boomers, I hope that this won’t scare off younger readers. There is a lot here for you young’uns as well. (For instance, if you haven’t yet, check out Plath’s The Bell Jar — that was a great read for anyone of any age. Same for Goodbye, Columbus. Love Story, well, as I said, if you are in the mood for a guilty pleasure that you can read in a couple of hours. It’s kind of fun.)

      I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.

  3. Paul Z

    There’s a big place in my heart for Goodbye, Columbus. I’m still a baby boomer, but by the time I read it, the notion of a class divide within the Jewish population was something I needed to ask my parents about. I found the book and movie kind of hilarious – especially with the knowledge that we’re all Brendas now and there are no more Neils. I have to give credit to the movie for a little joke that my sister and I tell each other every time we’re at a family wedding: Who invited the cast of “Goodbye, Columbus”???

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. I didn’t get into it in my post, but “Goodbye, Columbus” and the 5 short stories in the collection earned Roth quite a bit of disapproval from some in the Jewish community, who labeled him a “self-hating Jew.” I think he wrote Portnoy’s Complaint in part to really irritate those critics. Kind of hard to imagine the heatedness of the controversy from this distance.

      Also, love your family’s little joke — I knew you were a funny guy! Did you have any Aunt Gladys’s or Uncle Max’s in your family?

  4. One of the great things about writing a blog such as this is that it sparks all kinds of connections and comments. Had dinner with my friends Barbara and Duncan last night, and while we were having dessert Barbara suddenly recalled a small moment in Goodbye, Columbus. Not one of the big, splashy scenes that everyone remembers. Just a small piece of exquisite writing. She did us the great favor of reading aloud the passage (which was a perfect complement to the blueberry fruit tarts that we were eating). It’s a moment in the story when Neal is down in the Patimkin’s basement and stumbles upon their extra freezer and extra refrigerator (now commonplace, perhaps, but a real extravagance in the 1950s). This sounded so good when Barbara read it aloud:

    “Besides the freezer, incongruously, was a tall old refrigerator; its ancient presence was a reminder to me of the Patimkin roots in Newark. This same refrigerator had once stood in the kitchen of an apartment in some four-family house, probably in the same neighborhood where I had lived all my life . . . After Pearl Harbor the refrigerator had made the move up to Short Hills . . .

    “I opened the door of the old refrigerator; it was not empty. No longer did it hold butter, eggs, herring in cream sauce, ginger ale, tuna fish salad, an occasional corsage–rather it was heaped with fruit, shelves swelled with it, every color, every texture, and hidden within, every kind of pit. There were greengage plums, black plums, red plums, apricots, nectarines, peaches, long horns of grapes, black, yellow, red, and cherries, cherries flowing out of boxes and staining everything scarlet. And there were melons–cantaloupes and honeydews–and on the top shelf, half of a huge watermelon, a thin sheet of wax paper clinging to its bare red face like a wet lip. . . .”

  5. Rick Sarkisian

    Is the term “college co-ed” still used? I think it means female college student. What does “co-ed” mean and how did the term evolve? This might raise the question of what other baby-boomer terms are no longer in use. Then again, I might be way off.

    • Co-ed is a bit of a relic from the days (not so long ago) when college was considered a primarily male pursuit. It is short for “co-educational” and it refers to women who attend a college or university that contains students of both sexes. Now that women are actually in the majority on college campuses, I think the term is slowly dying away.

  6. Rick Sarkisian

    Erich, Talk about door-stoppers, I am currently reading 1Q84 by my favorite modern Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. It is 1200 pages and I will be sad when I finish reading it; it is that good. His works have stimulated my interest in things Japanese to the point that I am practicing my Japanese bow (influenced by an episode of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm). I also started reading Jung Chang’s Empress Dowager CiXi. This is a mere 400 pages. CiXi was Empress of the next to last Chinese dynasty. The last dynasty was beautifully depicted in Bertolucci’s film “Last Emperor”, a film which brings tears to my eyes at the end. I may read War and Peace next.

    • Wow, Rick, a very impressive reading agenda you have set for yourself. I’ve not read any Murakami, though he has been on my radar for a while now. Which would be the best to start with? Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or something else? I find my stamina for really long books isn’t as good as it used to be. Nowadays, if I I’m reading a hefty book, I find I need to read a few shorter works before I try tackling another door-stopper. Always great to hear your comments. Happy New Year.

      • Rick Sarkisian

        Hi Erich, and Happy New Year. I might suggest Norwegian Wood, which was Murakami’s first(?) translated book in the West. It is less than 300 pages, and, to quote the amazon blurb: “This stunning and elegiac novel by the author of the internationally acclaimed Wind-Up Bird Chronicle has sold over 4 million copies in Japan and is now available to American audiences for the first time. It is sure to be a literary event.

        Toru, a quiet and preternaturally serious young college student in Tokyo, is devoted to Naoko, a beautiful and introspective young woman, but their mutual passion is marked by the tragic death of their best friend years before. Toru begins to adapt to campus life and the loneliness and isolation he faces there, but Naoko finds the pressures and responsibilities of life unbearable. As she retreats further into her own world, Toru finds himself reaching out to others and drawn to a fiercely independent and sexually liberated young woman.

        A poignant story of one college student’s romantic coming-of-age, Norwegian Wood takes us to that distant place of a young man’s first, hopeless, and heroic love.”
        I got into Murakami in the late ’90’s when I was commuting to Asia from NY. I was in a constant state of jet lag and Murakami perfectly fits that mindset, as does lounge music, in particular the work of Kruder and Dorfmeister (check out the K&D sessions).
        Murakami himself was a bartender in a Tokyo western-style jazz bar.

        I never read Love Story as it seems too sad with the girl dying at the end.
        In Asia I read a novel by Philip Roth about Lindbergh becoming President as a fascist. This is somewhat a historical novel as there was a definitive pro-business fascist movement in the US in the 1930’s. This movement went underground and now expresses itself as “globalization” and “free trade”. Maybe you can get into this with the Ayn Rand review.

  7. Thanks, Rick. Lots of great suggestions. I’ll have to check out Norwegian Wood (wonder how that translates into Japanese?). Also, I think the Roth novel you’re talking about is The Plot Against America? I’ve had it on my bookshelf forever, just haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. But seems like I should turn to it soon.

  8. What a fun discussion. Great idea to write about both books — they really make an interesting pairing.

    • As I said, it’s a little unfair to compare Segal to Roth. But it is interesting to note how many similarities Love Story and Goodbye, Columbus share–apart from the obvious gap in talent between the two authors. Thanks for commenting.

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