[editor's note: Just in time for Valentine's Day! Is it a modern classic or incredibly dated? One of our favorite reviewers dives headlong into this tome to find out. Which honestly saves me the trouble :)]
I’m going to be upfront. There are some people of a certain generation for whom this story is an iconic reminder of youthful romance. Those of you who cherish this book or the film based on it should probably stop reading right now. The original tearjerker of seventies sentimental squalor has sold over 21 million copies since it was published in 1970 (or so the jacket-copy tells us). The tagline—“Love means never having to say you’re sorry”—has probably been responsible for lowering the emotional IQ of an entire generation. I would argue that part of being a functioning, mature adult means that if you love someone, you should be capable of saying that you’re sorry, particularly when you’re as much of a bozo as the leading man of this piece is. Whether Oliver is meant to invite our frustration or not, this man is one of the most pathetic and irritating leading men I’ve ever encountered. Consider Holden Caulfield minus the existential dread, making him richer and more popular, then take away any sense of character he could have developed through the novel, reduce the result into mush and you have Oliver Barnett IV.
Oliver is a gleefully self-obsessed, emotionally-stunted, idiotic college boy at Harvard who routinely likes to invade Radcliffe’s library so he can “check out the cheese.” (Brace yourself, worse lines come aplenty.) While there, he meets Jenny, who’s not quite as wisecracking as people seem to think she is. Instead, she’s pretty flat. Apparently Segal belongs to the irritating and long-standing tradition of male writers who do not know how to write female characters. Jenny’s a “bitch” (as Oliver keeps referring to her in a non-joking fashion) because she points out the disparity in library sizes between Harvard and Radcliffe. She’s mysterious and sensitive because she doesn’t fall at the feet of Oliver, who invites her to hockey games that she doesn’t enjoy and almost promptly forgets her existence in order to go join in some good-old American homoerotic locker room teasing with the boys post-game. For two people who clearly mix like oil and water, they can’t seem to get enough of each other, which is good for them because I can’t understand why anyone else would give them the time of day.
Oliver is continuously complaining about his father, who drove all the way to Ithaca to watch his “crummy hockey game,” which apparently means nothing to Oliver even though he can’t stop bringing it up. When Oliver introduces Jenny to his parents, he promptly forgets her last name and switches the letters around to give her a completely different name. (Why on earth should he know his fiancé’s last name? After all, if things go as planned she’ll be changing it soon.) When he gets into a fight with his father and is cut off from the family fortune, he waltzes into the Dean’s office and demands a scholarship so that he can return to Harvard the next semester—even though the deadlines for scholarships are long-past and his family’s financial situation would probably disqualify him from the “free ride” scholarship he seems to want. When the Dean tells him that life does not work that way, Oliver throws a temper tantrum. The concept of going without has never occurred to him before.
It turns out that Jenny will support them both, because for some reason he can’t get a job to help pitch in at the moment. When Jenny comes home from work, “dinner still has to be made” because the idea of him taking a break from Plessy v. Fergusson to boil some noodles is absurd. When Jenny attempts to warm relations between Oliver and his father, he responds by ripping the phone out of the wall and throwing it. For some reason, she comes back to him.
When they can’t conceive a child, it’s because something is wrong with her, namely that she shouldn’t have a baby because she’s dying of cancer. Oliver and her doctor conspire to keep it from her as long as possible, lest the truth harm her even more than a progressively degenerative, untreated medical condition would. That’s what you do when you love someone, after all. Jenny dies in the typical, angelic youthful death from illness in a passage that, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at.
Oliver seems to be a mountain of mistakes that grows ever-higher. The higher we travel up this mountain, the thinner characters appear. After a point it seems that all the characters are described as having the same “gray” features—perhaps as a look at his increasingly limited emotional and psychological awareness of the world around him as the novel continues, or perhaps just from lazy writing. Looking back on the events of the novel, Oliver cannot learn from any of the past events in the novel. Instead, it seems that he is growing less aware of other people through the book, until the moment when he makes a leap of emotional faith and reaches out to his father as a broken-down wreck.
As mentioned earlier, the only female character with (barely) a voice, Jenny, is a cardboard cutout. There is nothing about her that suggests why Oliver is in love with her, nor is there anything to suggest why she would fall for such an egotist as Oliver. Jenny is sensible, unspoiled and intelligent. Putting it simply, she’s too good for him. When she dies, it appears that she’s spending all of her time focusing on him. Instead of calling out his abusive tendencies, she minimizes their importance, stopping him the one time he tries to apologize by issuing the phrase that has become the novel’s tag-line.
I know that doomed and somewhat unhealthy romances since Romeo and Juliet have been in vogue with each generation of romantic youths—how else can we explain Twilight as a cultural phenomenon? It seems like each generation has an author who taps the vein and gives them the supply they need. All the same, this novel stands apart from so many other works in terms of its ability to irritate. The odd moments of the novel that are interesting are unintentionally funny examples of how not to write a romance. I worry that this book might be picked up by 20-something hipsters in their habit of reclaiming swaths of cultural iconography their parents lived through and become a best-seller all over again. Here’s hoping that Love Story remains relatively unknown to my generation, except perhaps as a guide to love done wrong.