ONE CAN ONLY assume that Erich Segal's goal in life is to be dipped in bronze and mounted somewhere on the Harvard campus. I, for one, would be happy to gratify that wish. Apparently unsatisfied with Love Story, the classic mawkish, lightweight novel, Segal has unloaded a sequel. But for all his insipid sentimentality about Harvard and his nauseatingly self-conscious style, Segal is no fool. Oliver's Story is selling like hotcakes, and Rona Barrett is probably spreading rumors about how much Ryan O'Neal wants for the inevitable film version.
Oliver's Story (note the original title) takes its rightful place on a literary scale with its inconsequential predecessor, but it weighs in at a whopping 264 pages, more than twice as long as Love Story. The problem is that Segal cannot make the same trick work twice. His style is exactly the same as in Love Story, but the sequel has neither the wit nor the brevity that made Love Story the dubious achievement that it was. Oliver's life as a widower simply is not interesting enough to fill that many pages. Perhaps the only encouraging thing about Oliver's Story is that one can slog though it in about three hours.
This time around, we get to watch Oliver Barrett IV, former model Harvard boy turned lonely do-gooder, deal with the loss of his wife and with his eventual self-discovery. The story picks up 18 months after Jenny's untimely death. Oliver has thrown himself into his work as a crusading liberal lawyer, coping with grief by shutting off all his emotions. He does not allow himself to think about other women, for he is consumed by guilt. In the last chapters of Love Story, Jenny tells "Preppie" not to feel guilty for robbing her of freedom and adventure. But Ollie believes that he should feel guilty, and so he does, ad infinitum, ad absurdum, ad nauseum.
After several chapters of pseudo-sophisticated dialogue and self-flagellating self-analysis, the inevitable happens: while jogging in Central Park, Oliver finally meets a girl who seems to break through the veil of rudeness he uses to fend off the world. But if you cried when Ali McGraw angelically faded out in the film version of Love Story, fear not. Marcie, heiress-apparent to the former all-Ivy wing, is no match for Jennifer Cavilleri. She is, however, outrageously rich, mysterious, athletic and beautiful. Oliver's first comment about her is that she has a "fantastic ass." Obviously, Oliver's precious leftism does not include feminism.
Mystery enshrouds Marcie, and for several chapters neither Oliver nor the reader knows her last name or what she does. As it turns out, her name is Binnendale, and if that sounds like a dullard's play on the name of a fashionable department store, no wonder. She is, in fact, owner of a fashionable chain of department stores. Surprise!
Oliver's Story would have possibilities if Marcie Binnendale were the focal point, but Oliver's interior struggle is, and the book suffers as a result. The ill-fated romance is only a sidelight, an indication that Oliver finally has managed to overcome his bereavement. But the confessions of Oliver Barrett IV are conspicuously uninteresting. Page after page, Ollie exorcises his guilt for the excesses of his forebears, who exploited workers for generations in order to accumulate a spectacular fortune. Oliver is in position to inherit the tainted millions he rejected in Love Story, depending on Jenny, fostering his guilt over her death, and so on.
DESPITE THIS SOUL-SEARCHING, Oliver sells out in the end. Oliver III retires, and Oliver IV renounces his decision to abandon the family fortune he rejected so endearingly. At last, Oliver knows who he is--a widowed capitalist returning to the fold after a brief fling with radical chic. The Harvard dream--or nightmare--comes true with a vengeance in this otherwise deadly dull book.
Segal's gall in using the same homogenized success formula is annoying. Love Story was somewhat ingenuous the first time, but this time around Segal's clearly going for the gold. In this version the style is too cute and unoriginal to succeed. But there's an even more irksome side to the Segal works for Harvard readers. Segal's portrayal of Harvard is distorted, yet it is the one that millions of Americans apparently want to believe. The syndrome is a familiar one: Segal obviously fell head over heels in love with Harvard and all its money-encrusted trappings, heavy-handed traditions, and self-conscious style when he was here. He seems unable to break away from his seemingly idyllic undergraduate days. Hence the creation of the Barretts, with their wealth and generations of Harvardiana. Oliver is the consummate Harvard hero--hip, smooth, and above all rich, an amalgamation of everything Segal apparantly admires. To foist Oliver on an unsuspecting world once is bad enough; to do it twice is almost criminal. If Oliver's Story continues to sell as well as its predecessor, Segal is at least assured of being rich, and perhaps he will put the Barretts and the public out of their misery by discontinuing the saga.
Those who like Love Story will probably like Oliver's Story, too. Those who found Love Story a slick collection of sentimental, tear-jerking trash will hate Oliver's Story just as much, if not more. Still, Oliver's Story currently is near the top of the bestseller lists, notwithstanding a conspicuous lack of quality. It makes you wonder again what people will read, and what kind of images they prefer to have place before them.
At least there was love involved the first time around.