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Literature / Endless Love

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The cover of the 1999 version

Endless Love is a 1979 romance/Crime Drama novel by American writer Scott Spencer.

In 1967, Chicago teen David Axelrod burned down the house of his girlfriend Jade Butterfield, nearly killing her family and himself in the process. Instead of prison, he was sent to a mental hospital for psychiatric evaluation. Years later, after his release, he narrates the tale of what happened when he came back home. We learn that David is still deeply in love with Jade, to the point of obsession, replaying the moments of the relationship over and over. He also reveals that he was extremely close to the Butterfields, a Bourgeois Bohemian family who provided an exhilarating contrast to his own rather low-key, politically engaged parents. He goes to great lengths to reconnect with Jade, and eventually tracks down the Butterfields, but a gruesome death that he plays a role in raises the stakes for David, even as it brings him one step closer to Jade.

A bestseller that was also well-reviewed, even getting named a finalist for the National Book Award, the novel has had two film adaptations. The first one, released in 1981, was directed by Franco Zeffirelli, with Martin Hewitt as David and Brooke Shields as Jade. It was a fairly big hit (one of the top 20 grossing movies of 1981, in fact) and generated a major Breakaway Pop Hit with the title song, sung by Lionel Richie and Diana Ross, but was roasted by critics; Leonard Maltin called it "a textbook example of how to do everything wrong in a literary adaptation." The second, released on Valentine's Day 2014, was directed by Shana Feste, with Alex Pettyfer and Gabriella Wilde. It got even worse reviews than the first film, and just barely broke even at the box office.

The novel contains examples of:

  • Accidental Murder: The novel's turning point happens when David is walking down the street in New York. Hugh Butterfield, Jade's father, spots him, then tries to chase him down, but gets hit by a car and dies on impact. Technically David isn't at fault for the death, since it was the other person who instigated the situation, but he was violating his parole by even being in New York in the first place.
  • Author Avatar: David shares a few biographical details with Scott Spencer, since they both grew up the son of socialist-leaning parents on the South Side of Chicago and attended Roosevelt University at one point.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: Jade refers to the Butterfields as "my fucked-up family" and it's easy to see why. Besides their permissive attitudes towards sex and drugs, arrogant Hugh and Cloudcuckoolander-ish Ann are raising three somewhat problematic children. Their oldest kid, Keith, is hotheaded and bossy, and clashes with his more levelheaded younger brother Sammy. Jade is aimless, wishy-washy, and extremely fickle, getting involved with David despite his issues.
  • Bourgeois Bohemian: The Butterfields are a prime example of an ultrahip middle class family from 1967. Hugh and Ann have a nicely furnished home, are accepting of Jade's sexual relationship with David, and a telling detail David discloses is that the night he set their house on fire, the whole family (children included) had taken LSD together (though he didn't mention that to the authorities, to protect them).
  • Calling Parents by Their Name: David almost exclusively calls his parents Arthur and Rose, which speaks volumes about how alienated he is from them.
  • Consummate Liar: David will flat-out lie when it's convenient, like when he denies to his parole officer that he ever wrote a letter to Keith.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: David is this and admits as such but in a different way from the usual - rather than murder somebody, he commits arson, he himself asking if he did it out of jealousy.
  • Cringe Comedy:
    • David's recurring trait of not knowing when to quit and persisting until he screws things up completely is very darkly funny at times, mainly because he's more deluded than malicious.
    • The infamous "sex during a period" sequence also fits into this, because David finally gets his wish to sleep with Jade again, but at the least convenient time to do so.
  • Direct Line to the Author: This is directly in play throughout all of the book, as we are only hearing David's account, and Spencer himself through subtext asks how much we can ever really be sure is truthful and how much is affected by his own emotions and biases.
  • Dramatic Irony: In the scene where David visits Ann Butterfield and she finds out that Hugh's girlfriend Ingrid wants to talk to her about something, she assumes it's just her ex's new lover trying to feel her out, and makes some sarcastic, lighthearted comments about the situation. We cringe along with David since we know exactly what's going to happen—Ingrid will give her the news that Hugh was hit by a car and killed.
  • Experimented in College: Jade is in college when the book catches up with her, and she's in a Relationship Revolving Door with her classmate Susan Henry.
  • Foreshadowing: David's father overworking himself is mentioned earlier on, but comes into play much later in how it affects him.
  • Framing Device: The entire set of events is presented as David writing and talking about what happened, from the arson attack up to the very moment he started telling the story, the last part telling what he knows about Jade at the end.
  • Good Lawyers, Good Clients: This is Discussed by David, being mentioned that this is how David's parents like to think of themselves, with them both being left-wing lawyers working against 'the man' such as executives and corporate lawyers.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: This is suggested to be what causes David to start a fire in the first place - he's jealous of what Jade has, and how it's all now gone from him because he's no longer allowed in their house.
  • Impoverished Patrician: While still reasonably middle class and able to live well enough, there are suggestions that Ann and Hugh were both much more wealthy than they are when we first see them, and were able to at some points influence through their money. In one of her letters to David, Ann describes the backgrounds of Hugh and herself as "faded rich (very faded)."
  • Ivy League for Everyone: Sammy Butterfield ends up going to Harvard.
  • Karma Houdini: Jade doesn't appear to have faced any legal consequences for harboring David for two years while he was violating his parole.
  • Let the Past Burn: Rather than an ending trope, this happens at the start. David burns down Jade's home, and with it burns his own memories of what happened there. This is also the event that leads to him going into a psychiatric facility.
  • Limited Social Circle: David has a very limited social circle due to how his parents basically kept in touch with people who were socialist, eventually finding people who knew him who'd defend him in court.
  • Look Both Ways: What kills Hugh. He didn't look both ways. Just head on, aiming towards David.
  • Love-Interest Traitor: The climax—David has been living with Jade in Vermont, but then has to go back to Chicago when he learns his father Arthur is in the hospital. While he's gone, Jade finds out from her father Hugh's former girlfriend that David running away from Hugh when he spotted David on the street in New York is what led to Hugh getting struck and killed by a car. When he gets back to Vermont, Jade locks David out of the house and calls the police on him, leading to his arrest and incarceration.
  • Mrs. Robinson: Ann Butterfield tries to seduce David, and tells him that she successfully seduced a man younger than him, while also lamenting that young men tend to not be interested in older women. The dynamic of David being obsessed with a girl, but also drawing unwanted attention from her mother, makes the novel sort of a dark satire of The Graduate, among other things.
  • Never Got to Say Goodbye: David never gets to say goodbye to his father, Arthur, due to Arthur dying of a heart attack while he's locked up.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: At the gathering in Ann's apartment after Hugh's death, Keith confronts David about his barging his way back into the Butterfield family's life. David actually seems contrite about the whole situation, but Keith insists on berating him.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: The Butterfields are Red, the Axelrods are Blue, particularly the parents. Hugh Butterfield is an alternative medicine practitioner, Ann Butterfield is a (mostly unsuccessful) writer, and are very openly emotional and passionate. Arthur Axelrod is a communist-leaning lawyer, and remains emotionally distant with his wife Rose.
  • Replacement Goldfish: In the last chapter David talks about a woman named Stephanie who's a fellow patient at the psychiatric hospital that he becomes obsessed with in a similar manner to Jade.
  • Sarcastic Title: Despite its title, the book is more about David's long-term obsession with Jade than True Love.
  • Shotgun Wedding: Hugh Butterfield married Ann after she got pregnant with Keith.
  • Shown Their Work: August 12, 1967 (the night David burned down Jade's house) was indeed a Saturday, as David mentions a couple of times in his narration.
  • Single-Target Sexuality: David toward Jade. Emphasized when Ann throws herself at him when he visits her in New York, but he turns her down.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Ingrid Orchester, Hugh's girlfriend witnesses Hugh getting killed while he chases David, informs Ann about the death, then later reveals to Jade that David indirectly caused Hugh's death, which prompts Jade to turn David into the police for violating his parole.
  • Stalker with a Crush: On being released from the psychiatric unit, the first thing David does is to find a way to get to Jade again.
  • The Stoner: The older members of the Butterfield family smoke weed frequently, and Keith even ends up growing it at his place in Vermont. David also counted as one up until his obsession with Jade became his main vice.
  • There Are No Good Executives: This is Discussed by David, with him saying this is a belief held by his parents, due to their status in going against the rich as lawyers.
  • Title Drop: At the start of Part II David talks wistfully about "endless love" as a concept, obviously thinking that his obsession with Jade is some sort of romantic ideal.
  • Troubled Teen: David, of course, but rather than just acting out, he seems to have some serious psychological issues and a general lack of fulfillment in his life that leads him to commit desperate acts.
  • 20 Minutes into the Past: The novel was published in 1979; it opens with David torching the Butterfield house in 1967, and the climax happens in 1973.
  • Unreliable Narrator:
    • From the get-go, this is the case with David, who's obviously intelligent and very perceptive, but also tells the story in the most self-serving way possible. In fact, he doesn't even acknowledge how much some of his actions cross the line (like essentially stalking the Butterfields after he's released from the hospital).
    • Similarly, his admiration for the Butterfields, who are a deeply Dysfunctional Family, and his obsessive love for Jade, who honestly doesn't come across as very appealing or bewitching, don't seem justified by what he tells us about them.
  • We Used to Be Friends: David says that Keith befriending him was his introduction to the Butterfield family, but by the time the book's action starts, Keith wants nothing to do with David, partly because of his obvious anger about David burning down his house and causing the collapse of his family, but also with some My Sister Is Off-Limits feelings about David and Jade's relationship.
  • Wham Line: "I know everything"—Jade informing David that she knows he was involved in her father's death, ending their romance for good.
  • What Does He See in Her?:
    • A very particular point of the book is that Jade isn't developed much as a character. We're never exactly sure of how physically attractive she might be (one character calls her "the best-looking flat-chested girl I ever saw"), and personality-wise she doesn't seem particularly charming or alluring. Scott Spencer does this very deliberately, so that we'll keep asking "why her?" when we read about the extremes David goes to for Jade.
    • That said, Jade definitely falls victim to What Does She See in Him? as well, given that she renews her relationship with David, the young man who nearly killed her and her entire family.

Examples specific to the film adaptations: