Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger

“Of course I knew.  It was the reason I was no longer comatose after an entire life of sleepwalking.  It seemed that, all of a sudden, Marisol was necessary to my existence, but of course, I didn’t mention that to her”

John’s parent’s divorced six years ago; his father left them for the high-flying bachelor life in the city.  John’s mother never touches him-not a hug, pat, or even accidentally, while passing the butter.  It has left John cold, sarcastic, and (even though he might not want to admit it) profoundly unhappy inside.

That is, until Marisol swoops into his life: a skinny, Puerto Rican lesbian, adopted by do-gooding WASPy parents.  They bond over their respective zines, which, for the uninitiated, are short, self-produced magazine publications.  They meet for coffee (which John learns to first tolerate, and then even like), and go to a concert.  The two talk for hours about feelings, parents, being different, and everything friends talk about.

However, things get complicated when John develops feelings for Marisol-those kind of feelings.  Even though Marisol is a lesbian, John falls for her, and can’t help but wishing there was more to their relationship.  The two have to navigate around their attachment, while at the same time, John is trying to renegotiate his relationship with his parents, and find who he really is.

This is a lovely, honest depiction of a growing friendship, especially when Wittlinger delves into John’s romantic attachment to Marisol.  It feels like this sort of situation happened to me at least five times when I was growing up, but it isn’t often that you see an author exploring those mixed-up love feelings.  These sections of the book really shine, and make it an award winner, I think.  She takes these miniatures of life, and examines them and works with them, and fills an entire book.  Fantastic, and not easy to do, I’d imagine.

Another great thing about the book is the references:  poetry, Ani DiFranco songs, inserts of various zines (art included), and the entire lyrics of the song that the book took its title from. It’s called Hard Love, by Bob Franke.  Here’s the Youtube link; I think you’ll like it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ejMPz5yOb0

All in all, this was a delightful book.  It reminisced on the awkwardness of the high school years, without dwelling on them.  And the relationships and characterization of John and Marisol are realistic and relatable.  I can see why it won some of the big awards: a YALSA Best Book, Lamda Literary Award, plus the prestigious Printz Honor nomination.  You don’t want to miss this one.  Even the dedication rocks:  “for everyone whose first love was a hard love.”  I can relate.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.ellenwittlinger.com

Wittlinger, Ellen. Hard Love. Simon & Schuster: New York, 1999. 224 pp.  Grades 9-11.

I know I usually recommend other books, but right now, I am still formulating my choices for this one: John reminds me so much of another character I’ve read, I just need to search my brain archives so I can tell you!

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