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Pickle Me This

February 13, 2014

Rereading Love Story for Valentines

Love_Story_(Erich_Segal_novel)_coverThough there were a thousand other things I should have been doing yesterday, I neglected every single one to reread Love Story, the book which started my career as a bibliokleptomaniac when I stole it from the library at age 12. And at age 12, I thought this was the most romantic book in the whole world, rivalled only by Elvis and Me by Priscilla Presley, which I also read over and over again. (Elvis was so achingly tender and protective! He called her his little girl! Which she was, being 14 and all, but anyway…) Obviously, my definition of “romantic” at age 12 was suspect–I think this was the year I listened to “Everything I Do… I Do It For You” on my walkman, rewinding the song back to the start until the battery died. I wanted a boyfriend so bad that I drew circles around the word “boyfriend” in my copy of Love Story until I put the pen through the page. I was in love with Oliver Barrett IV, and I also loved the Beatles, which gave me two things in common with Jennifer Cavilleri, the smart-assed, bespectacled working class girl from Cranston, Rhode Island, who steals Oliver IV’s heart.

It really is every woman’s fantasy–blandly generic man-creature with dashing good looks, athletic skills and an inherited fortune to boot falls in love with you precisely because you are a smart-ass, bespectacled girl who is smart and mouthy. At the age of 12, I did not yet have glasses, but you can probably see why this spoke to me. I saw the movie version of the book a long time ago, and remember being disappointed in it. I think that for the sake of dramatic tension, the film makes a point of Jenny’s steel will being broken finally, but it doesn’t happen in the book. The course of love here really does run smoothly, and it’s a lovely story. It really is.

My original version of this book was a battered (stolen) paperback, and I was reading a similarly battered copy of Catcher in the Rye around the same time, so the two books became linked in my mind. And it’s true that Holden Caulfield and Oliver Barrett have similar backgrounds and similar narrative styles, address their readers in a similarly (dated) colloquial fashion. It’s true that both characters also know themselves far less well than their readers understand them (or at least their readers who are older than 12). Neither of these boys/men is very sure of himself.

(Note: my Oliver Barrett IV is not Ryan O’Neal. Gross. Never. Love means never having to say that your Oliver Barrett is Ryan O’Neal.)

I make this comparison, which still holds up today, to show that Love Story is not a terrible book. Just its title is sort of shorthand for barf-inducing, but as one who reread it as recently as yesterday, I can promise you that it’s not that bad. Until it is. And then, oh, it is so bad, because any love that means not having to say you’re sorry is one in which one person is going to have to die within a year or two, because how can such a love be lasting? (Which I know now because I am not only not 12, but I have been married for nearly 10 years.) And it’s going to have to be Jenny, who dies of leukaemia and reports that it doesn’t even hurt. Surely, the tidiest death in all of literature. She was a bit pale, is all, and then she died. And what can you say about that?

I tried to read Elvis and Me a few years ago, purely for fun. I thought I’d enjoy it but it was terrible, unbearable. But Love Story, on the other hand, I will probably visit more than a few times again before I finally shuffle off my own beautiful, bespectacled, smart-assed mortal coil.

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