Leave it to John to make even The Sound of Music all gloom and doom. Not familiar with the story? Let's just say that the characters successfully escape from the Nazis. Usually this calls for some rejoicing… but not to hear John tell it. He says:
For some reason that song about following rainbows and finding your dreams made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I reminded myself Maria was only Violet Neville looking brave in a dumb hairdo, the captain was Vincent Brazwell carrying a small freshman on his back, and the Nazis were mostly kids who couldn't act very well. Brian was already poking me in the ribs. (7.2)
Dang, John—cheer up already. Also, way to shatter the illusion.
Even when John is enjoying himself, he points out negative aspects of whatever's taking place. He can't simply say, "I saw the play and it was good." Nope, instead he has to give us the depressing version. And this pretty much sums up the tone throughout the entire book. Since John isn't happy with his life, the tone dresses to match.
Our main dude is a junior in high school, and his BFF-turned-dream girl is one year ahead of him. The two of them worry about stuff like love, sex, identity, and exploration, which are usually all part of young adult lit. Hard Love takes its own twist on the popular genre, though—so while there's plenty of angst and drama, it gives us a more grown-up tale of love between two people. In the end, there's no grand resolution or happy ending; instead, we see heartbreak. And because of this, we're saying it has one foot in the coming of age genre, too.
See, by not painting a super rosy picture, John's path takes a more adult turn. He decides to open himself up anyway, despite understanding that it may very well mean he gets hurt again. After a youthful rejection of connection, he steps into the more mature position of being willing to risk his heart for the potential gains he stands to come into through connecting with other people. Is he all the way an adult yet? Nah. But like we said—the book definitely hangs out on coming of age turf.
We know the book is about love—it's called Hard Love, after all—and we also know the love that John has for Marisol is tricky because it can't be reciprocated. That's where the hard comes in. Or part of it anyway. John has a hard time loving anyone or anything, so that his feelings are unrequited for Marisol is really only one part of his difficulty.
Diana spells John's journey out for us when she sings a song called "Hard Love" at the zine conference. She even tells John that she sang Bob Franke's song for him, and the lyrics are included the book. Check it out:
"Love is never wasted, even when it's hard love. Yes it's hard love, but it's love all the same, Not the stuff of fantasy but more than just a game. And the only kind of miracle that's worthy of the name, For the love that heals our lives is mostly hard love." (16.44)
The song says that even if love is messy, complicated, and annoying, it's still worth it. So not only is John's love for Marisol worth it even if it's hard, but his shift away from being closed off to those around him in general is, too, even if he gets hurt a bit along the way. The title makes sure we catch this message, especially since things end on an awkward note between John and Marisol. The love they share—hard as it may be at times—helps heal them both, even if it leaves them with some emotional scabs, too.
After Marisol ditches him to run off to New York and find herself, John reflects on his situation. He's upset about his best friend leaving, to be sure, but he gets that they can't be together, no matter how badly he wants it to happen. Just when we're about to write this off as the most depressing book ever, though, we get a small glimpse of hope. John tells us:
I'm ready, I think, to join them. Very anxious, more than a little scared, susceptible now to anything that might happen. (17.36)
Hmm… could our resident cynic have turned soft? Well, not exactly—but we do get the idea that there's more ahead of him than a future full of emotionless doubt and self-loathing. And that, Shmoopers, gives us hope. Call us romantics, but we think the best is yet to come for John. Why? He says so himself. He's less skeptical now and willing to try something new; he's open. Here's hoping he finds what he's looking for.
John's dad lives in Boston, his mom lives in Darlington, and we've got a bit to say about these two locations on a symbolic level over in the… drum roll, please… "Symbols" section. So if you don't mind, please hop on over there to dig deeper into these two locations.
We'd like to add, though, that everything about this setting comes from the real world we live in. And because of this, the hard work John does to become a more open person is pretty relatable to readers. Chances are more than decent that you or someone you know has navigated a messy parental divorce or struggled with trusting other people, and with such a real setting, it's easy to identify with these threads as the story moves along.
It's easy to get hooked with John's tale of love intertwined with his search for identity. There aren't too many complex sentences or tough language to get lost in, and the plot isn't all that complicated either. The trickiest thing, actually, is the subject matter. There's a reason Facebook has an "it's complicated" relationship setting, and it seems like no matter what John does, his love life is never smooth sailing. You'll be able to follow right along, though. And hey—all's fair in love and war, right? Well, we'll let you decide that one for yourselves.
John tells us exactly what he's thinking, which often means spilling out his thoughts to us in one long sentence or paragraph. Check out what he says here, after his fight with his dad:
Dad usually slept late on Saturday mornings, but just in case he decided to get up to deliver a comeback to my Bertucci's outburst, I figured I ought to disappear as early as possible. Since I had several hours to kill before I had to meet Marisol, I took along the second issue of Escape Velocity, which I'd already read several times, and the copy of No Regrets I'd picked up last Saturday and skimmed while waiting at Tower Records. (4.1)
He could just say "I wanted to avoid my dad so I left the apartment," but instead he gives us specifics about what he's doing and why. We might call this elaborate. He always gives us more information than we actually need—it's not just that he's avoiding his dad, it's that he wants to disappear and escape from his life—but at the same time, the information is always specific. And his lengthy sentences are never confusing, which is good news for him on account of how he likes to write and all. And hey, we always know what's going on.
John's dad lives in Boston, and his mom lives in Darlington. Even though these are just a short car-ride away from one another, they couldn't be farther apart for John. This is because the two cities represent two distinct worlds for him. One is his mom's domain, Darlington, a small town full of families, soccer moms, and suburban concerns—or, as John's dad puts it: boredom. He confesses to his son:
"I had to get out of there, John. It was home to her, but it was killing me. That small-minded community, everyone so concerned about trimming their shrubs, and growing their roses, and, and…" (6.24)
His summary shows us just how different Darlington is from the big city, Boston, where John's dad lives. There, it's all about the high life with fancy restaurants and swanky parties to attend. No wonder John's dad moves to Boston to take up his newfound bachelor ways. John's movement back and forth between these worlds shows us how different his parents are, a constant reminder of the fracture in John's life that leaves him reluctant to take root anywhere. With his life split in two, John prefers not to open himself much to either location.
In case you didn't notice, zines are a big deal to John. He befriends Marisol and Diana through them, and writes one of his own—heck, zines are even the way he learns to trust people and connect with others. Without the zines, John wouldn't have gotten to know either Marisol or Diana, and since he's so closed off except when he writes, it would've been pretty hard for them to get to know him, too.
And it's the writing that matters most to John when it comes to his zine. He tells us: "okay. Zines were supposed to look like that, homemade and weird" (1.44) as an admission that his is more low-budget looking than most—but it's the writing that matters to him, so no worries. It's the writing he thinks about, scribbling words whenever he gets the chance. Writing is how he makes sense of himself and the world, so the zine is his outlet for sharing not just his craft, but himself.
When John admits his zine won't change the world, Marisol counters:
"So why bother then, if it's just some half-assed way to waste your time? If you're not committed to having people read what you've written? What have we been talking about all morning?" (2.39)
She believes zines are a window into someone's soul, and hopes that by sharing theirs, they can help people understand each other. Why else take the time to express yourself? Marisol doesn't let people in easily, but she wants her zine to bridge the gap between her and others. She helps John recognize that he wants the same, that his zine is an expression of himself and a way of connecting with people. And since John at least triples his friend network over the course of the book, we're thinking this connection happens.
It's the title of the book, so it comes as no surprise that the song Diana sings is symbolic. Check out the lyrics:
"It was hard love, every step of the way, Hard to be so close to you, so hard to turn away, And when all the stars and sentimental songs dissolved today, There was nothing left to sing about but hard love. So I loved you for your courage and your gentle sense of shame, And I loved you for your laughter and your language and your name, And I knew it was impossible, but I loved you just the same, Though the only love I gave to you was hard love." (16.42)
We know that she chose the song for John because—you guessed it—he's dealing with a hard love in his life. He loves Marisol, even though he doesn't want to, and he just can't seem to shake his feelings for her. John gets that his love for her can't be explained, and it doesn't make sense, that just as the song says, it's "impossible." Still, it's a big deal to John because he's never been in love before.
The song goes on to say that "Love is never wasted, even when it's hard love. Yes it's hard love, but it's love all the same, Not the stuff of fantasy but more than just a game. And the only kind of miracle that's worthy of the name, For the love that heals our lives is mostly hard love"(16.44). Did you notice that first line? It tells us that even though John is down in the dumps about Marisol not feeling the same way, his love for her isn't worthless. It's not something that he'll look back on and regret, it still heals him even if it hurts him a bit along the way.
This is a pretty major deal. For cynical John to admit that love is important in his life helps us understand how much he's grown over the course of the book. He's not the same jaded guy he starts out as anymore. He's open to love for the first time—even if it hurts—and the song helps us see that.
This is John's story, so it's fitting that he be the one to tell it to us. Did you notice how it's almost like he's talking directly to us, like we're his friends? Take when he's waiting for Marisol:
I looked out the window trying to guess which people might be coming into the store, which girl might be Marisol. But as people kept zooming past I got a headache, a twin to the one I had the night before at dinner. (2.3)
Notice how he's telling us what's going down (he's looking out the window) and how he feels about it (wondering who she might be, getting a headache). We get an all-access pass to what goes on with John. The downside? We don't get the stuff that he's not a part of, or that he doesn't understand. So when he tells us about his parents' divorce or a fight with Marisol, it's a little one-sided, because we only get a window into his mind. And we know he's not necessarily the most accurate at assessing situations—otherwise he'd never go in for that kiss.
We kick things off with John meeting Marisol, a complicated writer who is brutally honest in her zine but guarded in real life. This is fine and dandy with John, though, since he's as guarded as they come—he even claims to be immune to emotion. Marisol is pretty cool, though, and if he could be friends with anyone, it would be someone like her. But he's definitely not interested in becoming friends with benefits because he does not care about love. This is where everything begins, Shmoopers—without Marisol, John doesn't have much of a life or a story.
Against all odds, John and Marisol become BFFs. They're both used to shutting everyone out, but they actually connect with one another on a level that no one else gets. She likes how truthful his writing is, and he loves how well she knows herself. The two starts hanging out more often than not, and even spend the night together… just as friends. Of course, people start questioning the nature of their relationship, especially when John asks Marisol to prom. Looks like it's going to get complicated for the unlikely duo.
Things start to get complicated when John falls for Marisol. Sure, he doesn't mean to, but that doesn't change the dynamic in their relationship: John wants to be more than just friends, but Marisol can't give him any more than she's already offering. This causes a huge rift between our main duo because they can't go back to the way things were. They are at a turning point in their relationship, just like we are in the novel.
Cue the fall out: Marisol doesn't think it's fair that John fell for her even though he knew she is a lesbian, while John, on the other hand, claims he couldn't help it. You don't plan these things. The falling action takes place when Marisol leaves for New York. Sure, it rips John's heart out and stomps on it, but it's the first step for Marisol in figuring out who she really is, and for John in accepting that she can't love him the way he loves her. It's messy and complicated, but who said falling action was easy?
In the end, John learns about who he really is without the teenage angst and drama he's been living through after his parents' divorce. Things aren't perfect—or anywhere close to it—but he isn't as scared of everyone anymore. He's opened himself up, gotten hurt, and managed to survive. So why not repeat? Perhaps he doesn't want to throw himself into his next relationship just yet, but he knows that when he does he'll be okay, and he's excited to find love again.