Segal, Erich (Vol. 3)
Segal, Erich 1937–
An American educator, editor, translator, critic, and author of screenplays and a libretto, Segal gained fame for what is undoubtedly his least scholarly effort, the novel Love Story. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)
What can you say about a young author who identifies with his dying heroine and her hockey jock so as to wind up crying in paternal arms? That he gets to indulge his feminine impulses, and then be forgiven for them, in one of the most profitable and widely-shared acts of public wish-fulfillment in recent entertainment history? Or more fairly, that he gets to play the tender person he surely is against the tough one he would like to be, until the latter has been tenderized by love and grief? Either way the story reads more interestingly, and makes more sense, as the author's fantasy than as his sentimental art.
It makes more sense because the answer to the narrator's opening question, "What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?" is not the one which the book's title and much of its plot proposes: That she taught her Harvard athlete how to love; but rather That she taught him how to love his father. And it reads more interestingly because the homoerotic threat to that love, which the author's sentimental art disguises, is now exposed as the prominent clue to the story's resolution it really is. Love Story is the working out, through fantasy, of one man's role-confusions which, through sentimental art, has released the generation-bridging tears of modern millions. It is The Old Curiosity Shop of our time and Erich Segal is its Little Nell….
We may want to give Segal at least passing consideration for choosing his theme with Poe's deliberation and pursuing it with Dickens' zeal for popular success. He has done his predecessors one better, moreover, by making his young girl's death the occasion for reuniting a prejudiced father and his prideful son. This new twist could be important if it means that modern readers are responding sentimentally to a new kind of family romance, one in which the role-confusions of childhood may be "resolved" by a young girl's gallant sacrifice to the cause of male identity….
What seems particularly old-fashioned about Love Story is the idealization of its heroine. A wonder-girl like Little Nell, she is always right, always penetratingly wise, always courageous in the face of adversity, always loving and self-sacrificing. These ideal qualities are tempered by her systematic profanity by which we know she is authentic, and by her smartass putdowns of the hero by which we know she loves him. But otherwise she is the most nobly perfect young lady in popular fiction since Nell…. Jenny also lives and dies in accord with nineteenth-century myths of women as moral and spiritual guides for unworthy men and of young girls as the best and purest of those guides.
Mark Spilka, "Erich Segal as Little Nell, or The Real Meaning of Love Story," in Journal of Popular Culture, Spring, 1972, pp. 782-98.
Exactly what has made Love Story so phenomenally successful is something of a mystery. There are theories, but none of them fully explains what happened. Yes, it makes readers cry. Yes, it has nothing whatsoever to do with life today and encourages people to believe the world has not changed. Yes, as Segal points out, the book has almost no description; people tend to read themselves into it. And yes, it has come at a time when young people are returning to earlier ways.
Nora Ephron, in Esquire (first published in Esquire Magazine; copyright © 1971 by Esquire, Inc.), June, 1971, p. 152.