Monday, April 18, 2005

Just Read: Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger

On Sunday I read another YA novel, Hard Love, by Ellen Wittlinger. I enjoyed it, particularly the zine articles by some of the characters that Wittlinger pastes into the main narrative. These articles (and also some letters and poems) serve to illustrate how Wittlinger's characters turn to writing as a way of coping with life, reaching out to others, and coming to understand themselves. As Wittlinger herself has said: "And although I don’t set out consciously to say this, my husband tells me that all my books are about how art can save you. Kids who have no one to turn to, turn inward and find an art form—writing, video, drawing, singing—which gives them a way to express themselves and feel good about who they are. In the process, they often find that their art is a bridge to other people."

From the publisher's description:

Since his parents’ divorce, John’s mother hasn’t touched him, her new fiancé wants them to move away, and his father would rather be anywhere than at Friday night dinner with his son. It’s no wonder John writes articles like “Interview with the Stepfather” and “Memoirs from Hell.” The only release he finds is in homemade zines like the amazing Escape Velocity by Marisol, a self-proclaimed “Puerto Rican Cuban Yankee Lesbian.” Haning around the Boston Tower Records for the new issue of Escape Velocity, John meets Marisol and a hard love is born.

While at first their friendship is based on zines, dysfuntional families, and dreams of escape, soon both John and Marisol begin to shed their protective shells. Unfortunately, John mistakes this growing intimacy for love, and a disastrous date to his junior prom leaves that friendship in ruins. Desperately hoping to fix things, John convinces Marisol to come with him to a zine conference on Cape Cod. On the sandy beaches by the Bluefish Wharf Inn, John realizes just how hard love can be.

With keen insight into teenage life, Ellen Wittlinger delivers a story of adolescence that is fierce and funny—and ultimately transforming—even as it explores the pain of growing up.

John Galardi is a loner, unable to express his feelings except in the pages of his zine, Bananafish. He finds inspiration in another zine, Escape Velocity, created by Marisol Guzman, a self-proclaimed rich spoiled lesbian private-school gifted-and-talented writer virgin. Her sharp observations make John laugh out loud and he decides he must meet this witty author. By planting himself in Tower Records the day she drops off the latest issue, John manages to arrange a coffee date that extends over several Saturday mornings. They discuss everything from Johns inability to feel and his parents divorce to Marisols problems with her suffocating adoptive parents. When Marisol casually tells John that she likes him, he is flabbergasted:" Honest to God a shiver ran through my body... Nobody ever said that they liked me. Ever. Not even [my friend] Brian, who probably actually doesn't." After a disastrous just friends junior prom date and a weekend zine conference spent together, John realizes that his feelings for Marisol are more than platonic. And Marisol, who is exploring her identity as a young lesbian, has no idea how to let John down gently without losing her new best friend.

Like Barbara Wersbas's Whistle Me Home, Hard Love tackles the delicate issue of unrequited love between a straight and gay teen. But what sets this novel apart from similarly themed books is Wittlinger's choice to present the story from John's straight male point of view. Funny and poignant first-person narration will engender empathy for John as he attempts to connect with his emotionally distant parents and an understanding of how his need for their affection has manifested itself in romantic feelings for a girl he knows is unavailable to him. Hard Love is a thoughtful and on-target addition to the growing canon of gay and lesbian coming-of-age stories. (Ages 12 and older) Jennifer Hubert

For more information:
  • Ellen Wittlinger's website

  • Lyrics to the Bob Franke song that inspired Hard Love

  • Interview with Ellen Wittlinger

  • Another interview (and profile)

  • PDF file of "How Art Can Save You: An Interview with Ellen Wittlinger": "I first tried to write a novel for teenagers when I was thirty. But I hadn’t read many YA novels, and I hadn’t written much fiction. I think I thought writing for young adults would be easy and I could dash out a book in no time. Of course, that book neversold. If I had a preconceived idea, it was probably that books for teenagers were kind of insipid and that I would shock everyone by writing a really good one. How arrogant I was. Then I got a job in the Children’s Room of our local library, and I started to actually read YA novels. There were so many great ones! I realized there were things that I needed to learn about this genre if I wanted to write for it. Brock Cole’s and Katherine Paterson’s books gave me the underpinnings that I needed to start writing."

  • Ellen Wittlinger in her own words
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