Sixteen-year-old John Galardi, Jr. (And that Jr. thing I never used. What's that about, anyway? It's like telling your kid, "You're just a smaller version of me, Son. You're not really worth a name of your own.") is a child of divorce: during the week, he coexists with his mother in a suburb of Boston, and on the weekend, he stays at his mostly-absent father's place in the city. Some people would be lonely living like this, but not John. He is, as he puts it, "immune to emotion".
Everything changes when he discovers zines. They're like windows into other peoples' lives and minds and hearts, funny and smart and thoughtful and sad and searching. He's so inspired that he creates his own—he calls it Bananafish as a nod to his beloved J.D. Salinger—and he's so fascinated by the voice behind his favorite one, Escape Velocity, that he sets out to meet the author: Marisol Guzman, a self-described "Puerto Rican Cuban Yankee Cambridge, Massachusetts, rich spoiled lesbian private-school gifted-and-talented writer virgin".
Where to start?
John's voice: He's sarcastic and caustic, he pushes people away and away and away—he's especially awful to his friend Brian—but as the book goes on and he opens up more to the reader, it's clear that behind his walls and under his I-don't-care-about-anyone exterior, that he's desperate for connection.
And I never noticed it until this read, but John's love of Salinger comes through in the way he expresses himself: there are times when he absolutely channels Holden Caulfield. Not just because he's hiding all of hurt behind a Jerk Curtain, but in the rhythm of his narration and even in his choice of words.
Marisol: In another book by a different author, she'd be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. In some ways, it feels like that's what John wants her to be—or it's what she thinks John wants her to be. Unlike a MPDG, though, while their relationship sparks a change in his life, and as much as John wants to be at the center of her universe, Marisol is very much on her own path. Also, while being a lesbian is an important part of Marisol's identity, while her sexuality is certainly something that she's still figuring out and thinking about, that's not remotely all there is to her, and she's very much a three-dimensional person: even though we only ever get John's perception of her (except for some excerpts from her zine and a poem), the reader will see things about her that John doesn't, especially at first.
Wittlinger does a fabulous job of showing that for all their differences—her truth versus his lies, her frankness versus his secrecy, her urban worldliness versus his suburban shelteredness, parents who smother her versus parents who neglect him—they're really two sides of the same coin: John hides himself from everyone to keep from being rejected and abandoned, while Marisol flings herself in your face in order to weed out the jerks and keep herself from trusting people who will end up disappointing her. They both want to be seen, loved, and heard, but they're both guarded in their own way: John hides behind sarcasm and Marisol hides behind "her G&T bullshit". They both want to break free from their parents, but more than anything else, they both crave connection.
Treatment of sexuality: It's really wonderfully blasé for a book from the late nineties.* We never see Marisol or Birdie get vilified OR exoticized for being gay, and the one moment where a character teeters on the edge of being a jerk about it—Brian refers to Marisol as a "lesbo"—is treated as an eye-roll moment: John simply corrects him, and the conversation continues. Also, even though John falls in love with her, he A) never tries to talk her out of who she is or B) holds who she is against her. (I'd argue that the love he feels for her is more about connection than about romance anyway, but that's a whole other discussion.)
I feel like I've used the word 'connection' 87 times in this post, but at its heart, that's really what Hard Love is about. Connections between people; wanting more from someone than s/he can give; expressing ourselves and finding each other through writing, through talking, through poetry, letters, and songs; the terror of allowing yourself to feel and the terror of putting yourself out there; not knowing you're craving something until you allow yourself to realize that it's missing.
*Speaking of, it was written as a contemporary, but due to the era-specific pop culture references and details about technology (He called the order in on his car phone—(I'm glad practically everybody has them now so he can't feel so superior using the conspicuous thing)—so we could just zip by and pick it up on our way in.), almost fifteen years later, it reads like a historical.
Book source: Bought.