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?
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?)
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?
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.
“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.
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 opposite: wonderfully 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.”)
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.