Hard love? Frankly, John hasn't known any love in a long time. Ever since his parents were divorced, his mother hasn't touched him. To be more specific, his mother hasn't even accidentally grazed him with her hand when they both reach into the refrigerator at the same time. Strange? You bet, and it's been going on for years. His father isn't any better, effectively having checked out of John's life, too. John heads over to his dad's house in Boston every weekend, but his father leaves on dates long before the cheese on the pizza begins to coagulate.
At school, John obscures his pain with aloof sarcasm. He hangs out with his pal Brian, but the two rarely move beyond wisecracks. John avoids conversation and connection. As long as he and Brian hang out, at least it looks as though each of them has a friend. It's a silent agreement between them a pretend friendship. It's the best one John has. It's the only one, too.
Ellen Wittlinger's challenging new novel,Hard Love, introduces us to this lonely teenager. He hides behind his wit. He wears his emotional scars like an invisible Mohawk or tattoo with style, with the oblivious purposefulness for which teens are famous. You know John. You know that beneath that edge a smoldering heart lurks, ready to be found. Yet Wittlinger doesn't make it easy for anyone including her readers to find this wounded heart. She has bigger, more important plans for this complicated character. Her patience and honesty as a writer are gifts to teens everywhere.
John's world turns upside-down when he comes across a sassyzinecalled Escape Velocity, a self-published magazine by a Boston teen named Marisol. John is startled but intrigued by her honesty and self-awareness. In print, out there for anyone to read, she calls herself a "lesbian private-school gifted-and-talented writer virgin looking for love." How on earth could a teenager know herself well enough to say all that? And where does she get the guts to say it in print?
Inspired, John decides to create his own zine, not for self-exploration but more in the hopes of creating something for Marisol to read. After several fumbles, he connects with Marisol, who is angry, intense, and emotional in ways that John never imagined anyone could be.
Here's where the magic starts. Rob Thomas, celebrated author of Rats Saw God and other popular novels for teens, calls Hard Love "hip...compelling...gutsy," and you'll see why as this unusual friendship unfolds. Maybe John has nothing to lose. Maybe he is so lonely that even another rejection wouldn't make his life any worse than it is. Despite his shyness, he pursues Marisol and tries to break through her protective shell.
It works, surprising them both. Marisol is won over by John's earnestness and by his sexual ambiguity. She believes him when he says he's not trying to hit on her. He just wants to talk about writing, about zines. The two are a strange pair, and their friendship confuses everyone including themselves. They talk about writing, honesty, their dysfunctional families, and their feelings.
Author Ellen Wittlinger sublimely crafts John's awakening. Marisol challenges him. She stirs up feelings of longing and hopes for closeness that he buried inside himself long ago. When John begins to confuse his friendship with Marisol with romantic love, it's unclear whether he's headed for a fall or one of the most exciting journeys of his life. Frankly, it also is unclear if Marisol, a self-described lesbian, may be falling in love with John, too.
Yes, this is a love story, but it's a hard one. Hard Love explores the sort of love that transforms us, makes us whole, and leads us into the wilderness of our own hearts. It's about the kind of love that supports us and makes us grow, but also rips us to shreds. Deep friendship is a difficult thing to find and to nurture. Wittlinger never simplifies John and Marisol's experience of friendship. She doesn't give the reader easy answers either. Provocative and refreshing, Hard Love is about the real stuff.