'Bridges' success recalls 'Love Story' and 'Seagull'

August 06, 1993|By Tim Warren

Comparisons are inevitable between Robert James Waller's guaranteed tear-jerker and two other authors' works that tugged national heartstrings in the sentimental '70s. (Interesting to note: The best-selling novel of the hard-edged 1980s was "Clear and Present Danger," the techno-thriller by Maryland author Tom Clancy, which sold 1.6 million copies in hardcover).

"Love Story" parallels "The Bridges of Madison County" in several ways. It, too, was a very short (131 pages), hyper-romantic but bittersweet first novel written by an academician -- in this case, Yale classics professor Erich Segal.

"Love Story" also got a publicity boost on national television: Barbara Walters practically ordered viewers to buy it when Mr. Segal appeared on "The Today Show."

The lovers in this case were the snooty Oliver Barrett IV and the wise-cracking, working-class Jenny Cavilleri, who got together when he was at Harvard and she at Radcliffe. She dies of a mysterious illness a few years after they marry, but does manage to leave us with one of the catch phrases of the decade: "Love means not ever having to say you're sorry." The critics slaughtered the book, but it sold more than 400,000 copies in hardback and 5 million in paperback. Mr. Segal told The Sun in 1985 that he had just reread the book. "It wasn't bad, after all," he said.

"Jonathan Livingston Seagull" was an even slimmer book (93 pages) that was an even bigger seller (3.1 million copies in hardback). Written by Richard Bach, a pilot, it was a little fable starring one Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a fiercely independent bird who wanted to soar like other birds instead of hanging around with other gulls. "Why is it so hard to be like the rest of the flock, Jon?" his mother asks him. "Why can't you leave low flying to the pelicans, the albatross?" Because, as the book pointed out, Jonathan was really one of the last cowboys -- which is the way "Bridges" hero Robert Kincaid describes himself.

Mr. Bach's brand of early New Age spiritualism won him such devotees as the actress Barbara Hershey, who, for a time, changed her name to Barbara Seagull. She doesn't talk about that period now.

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