by Ellen Wittlinger
Reviewed by Lesléa Newman
Even in the twenty-first century, life for teenage lesbians can be difficult, but at least now there are out, proud role models to look up to. In addition to the three M’s: Martina, Melissa and Missy, the tennis star, rock legend and mountain bike goddess respectively, add Marisol, a self-proclaimed “Puerto Rican Cuban Yankee Cambridge, Massachusetts, rich spoiled lesbian private-school gifted-and-talented writer virgin looking for love.” (pg. 9) Marisol is the heroine of Ellen Wittlinger’s young adult novel Hard Love, and though she is a fictional character, like the other “M’s” she is larger than life and utterly remarkable.
Hard Love is narrated by John Galardi, who is having a miserable time in high school. John tells the reader with the book’s first sentence that he is “immune to emotion” and has one friend, Brian, of which he says:
“We recognized each other the first day we met—two hollow souls trying to pass for normal. Together we still add up to zero, but at least our hopelessness has a twin.” (pg. 3)
John’s home life is no walk in the park either. During the week he lives in suburban Darlington, with his mother who will not physically touch him (no handshakes, no hugs). On weekends he is shipped off to Boston to be with his father who eats dinner with John on Friday nights and then deserts him for the rest of the weekend. On one of these visits, John finds a stack of zines in the entryway to Tower Records, and discovers a whole new world. John gets so into zines that he creates his own, Bananafish, which he fills with his own writing. John also creates an alter-ego for himself, Giovanni. And it is Giovanni who meets Marisol one Saturday morning as she is dropping off the newest copy of her zine, Escape Velocity.
The two strike up an unlikely, but intense friendship. John, known as Giovanni to Marisol, has never met anyone like her. Marisol does not usually hang out with someone who might be “some crazy person who thinks he could turn me straight.” (pg. 24) What cements their friendship is their hatred of high school and their love of writing.
John now has something to look forward to, his weekend meetings with Marisol. They help him forget his troubles: his mom may be marrying her boyfriend Al who wants the family to move to a new town, and his friend Brian has finally met a girl and wants John to find someone to take to the Junior Prom so they can double date. John writes about it all in his zine, and learns how writing can reveal the truth:
“That’s what I love about writing. Once you get the words down on paper, in print, they start to make sense. It’s like you don’t know what you think until it dribbles from your brain down your arm and into your hand and out through your fingers and shows up on the computer screen, and you read it and realize: That’s really true; I believe that.” (pg. 7)
John also learns how lies can get you in trouble. He lies to Brian by telling him he has a girlfriend in Boston. Brian of course wants John to ask his girlfriend to the Junior Prom. Worse than that, John lies to himself. He pretends he has no sexuality or feelings and that he isn’t falling in love with Marisol. After Marisol takes John to an Ani DiFranco concert, she feels she “owes him one” and reluctantly agrees to go with him to the Junior Prom. Marisol thinks they are going “to sort of goof on the whole thing” while John gives in to his fantasies that Marisol is really his girlfriend. Of course the whole thing blows up in both of their faces and John is devastated:
“I watched her walk away, first thinking: good riddance—who needs this abuse? And then after a minute thinking: She never really understood me anyway. Which, rapidly changed to: I never understood her at all. And before long I was watching her small back disappear and thinking: There goes the only person who ever gave a damn about me.” (pg. 164)
All is not lost however. John and Marisol get together one last time, to go to a zine conference in Provincetown. And while they are both sincerely interested in zines, each of them has a have different agenda for the weekend: John wants to spend time with Marisol; Marisol, who has heard that Provincetown is “very gay” wants to meet more people like herself. Both John and Marisol learn a lot about themselves and each other that weekend, and resolve their friendship. Without giving away the book’s ending, rest assured that Marisol does not go straight, fall for John and ride off into the sunset with him to live happily ever after.
Wittlinger has her finger on the pulse of the teenage population; she welds sarcasm with this best of them. In addition, the novel is interspersed with well-written zine articles and poems in the voices of Marisol, Giovanni, and others. The novel is amusing, heartbreaking, and hopeful, like life. And though it is technically a young adult novel, it has immense crossover appeal. One of the missing ingredients in my own adolescence was books about strong female teenagers, let alone strong lesbian teenagers. Reading this book is one step in making up for that lack. As the bumper sticker says, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”
© 2000 Lesléa Newman