Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Endless Love By Scott Spencer

(Click here for information on the 2021 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature.  This week, the second selection, Endless Love By Scott Spencer

endless love 2

Starting with a peak behind the blog-curtain: one of the more popular links back to this site is to the 2013 piece on the evolution of Love’s Baby Soft cologne advertising, from an article/rant entitled HOW I BLAME BROOKE SHIELDS’S MOM FOR EVERYTHING THAT’S WRONG IN MODERN SOCIETY. (I’m not linking, but if you Google, you shall find it) 

From my point of view, Brooke Shields is one of those personalities that has been around for as long as I can remember- she may in fact be the very first celebrity I was aware of, via a neighborhood teen who had a Brooke Shields doll and was obsessed all things Brooke-and-Michael Jackson. Last winter, around mid-Pandemic, my sister and I both read Shields’s second (!) memoir, focusing on her relationship with her mother-manager, Teri Shields. Somewhat disappointingly, the book didn’t dish a lot of dirt (it was written in reaction to the 2012 New York Times obituary for Teri Shields, which played up the controversial roles mother booked daughter into decades previously) (however, it gratifyingly did offer some insight into the manufacturing of the Brooke Shields doll).

Several times throughout the book, Shields mentions that Endless Love, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, was one of the few quality movies she made. And despite being savaged by critics, the film was a hit and Shields’s performance was one of the few aspects that was widely praised.

We’ll circle back to the movie, but on to the book, and I’ll try to not make too many obvious “endless” jokes. The biggest surprise I found when looking at the critical response to the movie was that so many contemporary critics’ main complaint was that it compared poorly to the original novel which… was regarded as a serious work of literature in its day?

I am at a disadvantage in the year 2021, when a coming-of-age novel about a tormented white dude, liberally peppered with explicit sex, evokes only “Oh. Maybe we have had enough of these.”

As the book opens in 1967, 17-year-old David Axelrod has been exiled from the home of his girlfriend, Jade Butterfield, and her family. Shockingly permissive by the standards of the Chicago suburb in which they live, David had practically moved in with the Butterfields, a family of shabbily genteel bohemian-types. From David’s point of view, he isn’t given any explanation for this sudden exile, only some vague mumblings about how 16-year-old Jade isn’t getting enough sleep at night due to David’s prodigious sexual prowess. Unable to get anyone in the family to speak with him or satisfactorily explain things, he is forced to drastic action: he burns down their house.

Now, carefully explained from David’s point of view, he deliberately sets a small, contained fire on the front porch, just to get their attention, to force them out of the house and speak with him. But of course things go wrong when the fire gets out of hand and also the entire family is TRIPPING BALLS on LSD, which makes for a very narrow escape with their lives.

David confesses, and with the help of the friends of his Communist Party-faithful parents and a rich grandfather, it is eventually arranged for him to be tried as a juvenile and remitted to a progressive private psychiatric hospital, with the implied promise that he will be released on probation after a year.

The novel follows his decade-long obsession with Jade, as he searches for any trace of her family after he is released from the hospital and tries to convince his parents and parole officer that he is successfully readjusting to society.

David is defined by his obsession with both Jade and being accepted as part of the Butterfield family, and that is really all the reader gets to know about him. His object of desire is given even less character development; late in the novel Jade asks him

“What do you like about being with me?”

“Everything.”

“No. You know what I mean. Specifically, what do you like.”

“I like watching you get dressed, especially in the morning when you’ve just had a shower and you’re about to go off somewhere.”

And that is basically all of the insight we will get into it.

David’s search is eventually fruitful in locating Jade’s brothers (who want nothing to do with him); he has better luck with Jade’s mother Ann, now living alone in New York City under her maiden name, and the two start corresponding, eventually leading David to jump his parole and take the bus to see her. Over the course of a few days (and an unconsummated seduction) Ann fills in some blanks for David about the events leading up to and in the aftermath of the fire, including the Butterfields divorce and the crusade her ex-husband, Hugh, is on to keep David locked up.

David steals Jade’s phone number out of Ann’s address book, and makes plans to have dinner with Ann, who casually mentions that Hugh is in the city with his new girlfriend.

As much I am endlessly (heh) carping about the endlessly (heh-heh) indulgent nature of the prose, Spencer does give us a couple of really good scenes, including the second turning point in the novel, in which David again wreaks havoc on the family. Passing a few hours in a midtown bookstore, David foreshadows:

New York is the place in America where you’re most likely to meet someone you know; it’s our capital of surprise encounters. If you stay there long enough you might see everyone you ever knew.

And suddenly the crowd parts and Hugh and his girlfriend appear on the other side of the street from him. David tries to slip away unnoticed, but Hugh spots him and, enraged, darts into incoming traffic, where in blackly comic succession he is hit by a taxi and then run over by a florist’s van. David makes his way through the crowd to the body, where (despite the intervention of a nearby faith healer) it is clear that Jade’s father is extremely dead.

David slips away, and back at his hotel awaits a call with the “news”; when he doesn’t get one, he keeps his dinner date with Ann, pretending he knows nothing about what happened. When the girlfriend comes in person to tell Ann, she doesn’t recognize David as having been at the scene, and David believes it will be his ticket back into the Butterfield family fold and reunion with Jade.

Which is basically what happens. When the family gathers in New York for their father’s memorial service, Ann is insistent that she wants David with them. In rapid succession David learns that Jade has been dating a woman (because he was so great he ruined her for all other men????) BUT ALSO that she has just broken up with her girlfriend, as she comes to his hotel room and announces she is not going to spend the night and then does, which is literally a chapter-long description of period sex, which I feel like someone wants a medal for having written.

In the morning, Jade and David pack the blood-soaked linens in their suitcases (aside: dude, how much do you think ladies menstruate in one night????) and take a bus to the commune in Vermont where Jade has been living. David is now more a fugitive than ever.

While David describes the time in Vermont as an idyll, it is unclear exactly how unreliable a narrator he is supposed to be. At one point he references the time that has passed as two years in the hospital, then three years, then “almost five” years.

He does eventually pick up the phone to call his estranged parents in Chicago, which just causes his father to have a heart attack. He flies back to see them, but his behavior is increasingly erratic and paranoid, especially after he learns that the penalty for violating his probation is likely to be much harsher than it was for burning down the Butterfields’ house in the first place.

When he calls Jade long distance and learns that her father’s girlfriend had called and is going to be paying her a visit, he is overcome with foreboding: he knows that she has figured out that he was the reason that Hugh ran into traffic.

And so, David goes on the run again, and we get another really good scene, as broke and desperate, he tries make his way back halfway across the country, convinced that he can confess or explain or atone for Hugh’s death.

It doesn’t work: finally arriving at the commune, Jade locks him out and he spends the night sleeping in rain and the mud; in the morning she turns him in to the police.

The novel concludes in rapid succession as David is sent to prison, then a state psychiatric hospital, learns of his own father’s death, receives a bizarrely casual and chatty letter from Jade, learns that she has married and moved to Europe, and his eventual obsessive involvement with three fellow patients at the hospital.

And of course, in the end he declares his ENDLESS LOVE for Jade, and it is revealed that all 418 pages in paperback have been a letter to her. Whew.

Casting Brooke Shields as Jade in the movie was a smart move, as contemporary reviews point out that it would make sense that a teenage boy would become obsessed with her. I still maintain that Shields has that elusive star quality that has never really been served by any of her film vehicles.

Far less successful is the casting of Martin Hewitt (in his debut) as David. Not only does he look way too old (he was 23 to Shields’s 15), but the role also needs a lot of manic energy and freaky charisma: the whole time I was reading the book I was picturing a young Tom Cruise, and lo and behold, look who has one line as David’s unstable and manic friend!

EL tom cruise

Is there anything more frustrating that watching a movie and being like NO! RIGHT THERE! The actual right guy for this part is in your actual movie!

As everyone including Scott Spencer has noted, Zefirelli’s film is much more a conventional teen love story than the novel, and it mostly seems to be trying to capitalize on the success of his Romeo and Juliet from two decades earlier.

Also in the cast is a disconcertingly baby-faced James Spader as Jade’s older brother (who is also disconcertingly billed as “Jimmy” Spader); he is note-perfect in his brief scenes. In fact, the more I see of him, the more I think that Spader is the most underrated actor of the decade, classing up even the most dismal productions.

EL james spader

And hey, does Jade’s younger brother look familiar, Gen Xers? He barely gets a close up, but that is future Beverly Hills, 90210 star, Mr. Sharknado, Ian Ziering, going through his awkward phase right before our eyes.

EL ian zierng

Odds and Ends Department: Apparently the movie was originally slapped with an X rating, which is surprising to me, since the content seems toned down compared to Shields’s other work of the era… but that is a whole separate essay. Or a discussion in the comments section.

The film was remade in 2014, and looks to have even less to do with the source material

Availability: Book and movie remain in print and streaming

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13 Responses to Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Endless Love By Scott Spencer

  1. daisyporter says:

    That period-sex scene though….it was 21 pages in my copy, and revolting. Not revolting because of the period, but because of the lousy writing. It made me wish the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction award had been around in 1979. They could’ve even named the award after this book – that would’ve worked.

    • michele says:

      Ha, I remember reading the period chapter to my then-boyfriend on a road trip, and squeeving out on the part where he picks a blot clot from his tongue.

  2. Funbud says:

    Really, one does wonder what the point of this novel was? Was it based on some true life incident the author heard about? Because it just sounds lurid and pointless. I’ve never seen the movie; all I remember is Bette Midler’s crack at the Oscars when the them song was nominated “The endless theme song from the endless movie “Endless Love”.

    • mondomolly says:

      Oh Bette Midler, always ahead of your time. I would love to learn that this was based on a real incident and really hope that it wasn’t one from the author’s own adolescence.

  3. Sheesh says:

    The reason Tom Cruise didn’t get the part was probably because he didn’t look Jewish enough. I thought the casting for the most part was dead on except for James Spader, as Keith is supposed to be an owl-eyed geek.

    I would just love to see this book made into a movie that actually stayed true to the time period (1967-77) and played up some of the things that I thought were SO important to the story, like David’s parents being communists. I remember Siskel and Ebert reviewing this and they said, and were right, that the book was about the boy and the movie was about the girl, which I suppose was invariable once they signed Brooke Shields up.

    Obviously this isn’t a healthy or sane relationship…but I love the way Scott Spencer writes.

    • Sandra Leonetti says:

      Evert said in print, “[The film] is about events and it should be about passion.” And he also thought Hewitt was too adult-looking and adult-acting.

    • mondomolly says:

      Oh man, I am so thrilled people are willing to engage with me on this one! Do they even mention that David is Jewish in the film? I think he makes a passing reference to his parents being “socialists”, but I agree it’s a shame Zefirelli ignored this aspect, I thought the stuff with the “red diaper babies” and annoying teenage children of his parents friend going on about their trip to Cuba and his getting hired as a paid picketer for the the garment workers union (and his conflict over the company owners being Holocaust survivors) were actually waaaaaaaay more interestingthan the love story.

      Anyway, I think because they dumped the Jewish Communist aspect for the movie they could have gone with Cruise or (or possibly Robert Downey Jr? Although that might have made the character even more sympathetic) Thanks for commenting!

  4. Lee says:

    Scott Spencer is most definitely literary. This really isn’t teen lit.

    • mondomolly says:

      I mean, I favor the most expansive definition of “teen lit” am am still on the fence if this qualifies; it was definitely regard as “serious lit” upon its publication. I think the movie (which definitely found it’s audience as a “teen pic”) contributes to the perception it was written for & about teenagers.

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