Study Guide

Hard Love Themes

By Ellen Wittlinger

  • Identity

    When Marisol tells the entire world that she's a "Puerto Rican Cuban Yankee Cambridge, Massachusetts, rich spoiled lesbian private-school gifted-and-talented writer virgin looking for love" (1.52), we can't imagine she's searching for her identity. In fact, she seems like she's got herself figured out. Yet, she soon learns that she can't just string a bunch of adjectives together to make up an identity—the truth is, she's looking for who she really is just as much as John is in Hard Love. No wonder they become such fast friends.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Why does Marisol need to get away to figure out who she is? What distracts her at home? 
    2. Who has the clearest sense of who they are in the book? Is there a difference between how people see themselves and how they are seen by others? 
    3. Why doesn't John care who he is? When Marisol tells him he should figure it out, what do you think his response is? 
    4. Does John have a clear idea of who he is at the end of the novel? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Marisol might claim she doesn't know who she is, but she already knows her identity at the beginning of the novel, she just doesn't want to face it yet.

    John cares more about figuring out who other people are than sorting out his own identity because he thinks no one cares about him.

  • Love

    Taylor Swift might be your go-to for catchy love songs about broken hearts and romantic gestures, but Hard Love tells us a lot about love. You probably could have guessed that from the title, though. Marisol is searching for love, while John doesn't realize he falls in love and Brian won't shut up about love. All of our characters have to face the music one way or another, and it's not as simple as a T-Swift song. Too bad for them, too, since John's heart is broken in the process. He can't get what's so bad about loving Marisol, though for her, his love feels like a betrayal of who she is. In the end, we're not sure either of them conquers the whole love thing.

    But then again, the book isn't called Easy Love.

    Questions About Love

    1. What are the different types of love that Marisol and John feel for one another? Why does this cause a problem for them? 
    2. How does John's attitude toward love change over the novel? When do you think he changes his mind? 
    3. What's the deal with Brian always falling madly in love with every girl he meets? Does he have genuine feelings for Emily, or is she the only girl who can stand him?

    Chew on This

    Love causes problems between John and Marisol because she feels betrayed by his romantic love of her because she's a lesbian.

    John feels betrayed by Marisol's rejection of him because she claims to love him.

  • Literature and Writing

    When your main character is a writer, it's no surprise that the novel is full of observations about the process of writing itself. Hard Love looks at zines specifically, but really, we can apply what it says to all writing. John thinks about the different people we can become through writing, and he also tells us that writing something makes it true, regardless of whether it is.

    His commentary on writing is usually tied up in finding identity—another major theme in this book—but it also helps us understand him as a character. John loves writing because of the escape and clarity it gives him; when writing, John can be honest. And that's something he rarely is in real life, despite what he tells Marisol.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. Why does John write his feelings instead of express them? What is it that he enjoys about writing? 
    2. How does John think his writing makes people feel? How does it actually make people feel? Why is he surprised that he's "poignant"? 
    3. What does John tell us about Marisol and Diana's writing? Why is it important that he reads their work before meeting each of them?

    Chew on This

    In Hard Love, characters are truer to themselves in writing than in real life.

    John might use writing as a way to withdraw from the world, but it actually draws him closer to it. Through writing, he connects with Marisol and Diana.

  • Truth

    John's pants might as well be on fire in Hard Love—that's how much he lies. He tells his parents different things about each other, and he never manages to get the truth about how he's feeling out. When he first meets Marisol, he's surprised by her insistence on the truth—and later, he gets to feel her judgment when he lies—yet we can't help but wonder if Marisol is holding John to a standard that she can't meet herself. After all, she's careful not to lie, but she doesn't come out with the truth at all times either. And since even a little white lie is against her policy, we get a whiff of hypocrisy.

    Questions About Truth

    1. Why do you think Marisol hates lies so much? What does she classify as truth? 
    2. Does Marisol uphold her own standards about telling lies? How is she lying about herself to John? Herself? 
    3. Why isn't Marisol happy when John is finally truthful with his parents? What does she think about being honest with those you love?

    Chew on This

    Marisol expects everyone to always tell the truth, but she lies to herself by pretending to be something she's not.

    John claims he regrets lying each time he does it, but this doesn't stop him from continuing to deceive people, so he can't regret it that much.

  • Abandonment

    Abandoned by his father when he was ten years old, John is guarded: He doesn't let anyone in, and he doesn't allow himself to get emotional ever. Enter Marisol. She's just as guarded as he is, but she's never been abandoned by anyone—that is, until she feels deserted by John. Hard Love looks at the aftermath of abandonment, at the baggage people carry after they're left behind. For John, he's got an awful lot of issues to deal with since he's never resolved his anger at his dad, or his feelings toward his mom as a result. As for Marisol? Well, let's say she's a work in progress.

    Questions About Abandonment

    1. What is the difference between John's dad's abandonment of him, and his mom's? Which hurts him more? Which do you think would hurt you more?
    2. Do you think John's parents have more going on than they let on? How does John respond to each of them when they try to talk about abandonment with him? 
    3. Why does Marisol leave for New York? How does this make John feel?

    Chew on This

    John's parents abandoned him, but he doesn't ever give them credit for sticking around when they could have left completely.

    Part of why Marisol heads off for New York has to do with her mom, but another part of it has to do with healing from the betrayal she feels from John.

  • Friendship

    The friendships in Hard Love sure are complicated, but they're also very realistic. In the novel, just like in real life, friends fight, make up, have misunderstandings, support one another, and accidentally or purposefully hurt each other's feelings. Take when John drops an f-bomb just to get under Marisol's skin. Or, when she returns the favor by sending him a deep and dark poem about how he's not listening to her. But so it goes with friendships—they're rarely perfect, but that doesn't mean they're not super worth it.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. What matters more to John: having friends, or acting like he has friends? Why is he always acting like he's better than Brian? 
    2. Is John always a good friend? Why does he push people away all the time? 
    3. How is John's friendship with Brian different than his friendship with Marisol? Which one is stronger? 
    4. Do you think Marisol and John are still friends after the book ends? Will they be friends a few years down the road?

    Chew on This

    Brian is John's truest friend because he sticks with him through all the years when John's completely closed off emotionally.

    Marisol is John's truest friend because she inspires the biggest change in him—his shift from closed to more open.

  • Fear

    If you're expecting a secret room full of horrors or a cabin in the woods, then you've come to the wrong place—the fear in Hard Love just ain't the horror film type. Instead, John is scared of emotions and getting close to people. Okay, yeah, that doesn't exactly have us running for the hills, but that doesn't mean that John isn't super scared of the pain people can cause when you let them into your heart. And bummer for him, this kind of fear can't be solved with popcorn and clinging to your friend's hand until the creepy flesh-eating monster is off the screen.

    Questions About Fear

    1. Why is John so afraid of emotion? When does he show emotion and what does he show it for? 
    2. What is Marisol afraid of? What about John scares her? 
    3. Why is John's mom scared of touching him? What does it represent to her? 
    4. In the end, does the book ask us to put our fears aside, or keep our shields up?

    Chew on This

    John is too scared to let anyone in, but when he does, his fears are only confirmed.

    Marisol is afraid of how John feels about her, because it makes her question her own identity.

  • Exploration

    No one exactly goes into the final frontier here, but there's plenty of exploring to be done in Hard Love. John and Marisol are exploring who they want to become by testing out different versions of themselves, and in the end, Marisol flits off to New York to escape her parents and experience something different. Even the name of her zine—Escape Velocity—hints at the idea of exploring the world and your place in it. Ultimately, almost all of the characters do a little soul-searching at some point, and test the waters to figure out what the deal with life is. Well, everyone except John's dad, that is.

    Questions About Exploration

    1. Why does Marisol name her zine Escape Velocity? How does the title sum up her view on life? Does she accomplish escape velocity?
    2. What are John's parents exploring? How does this change his outlook on life?
    3. What does John learn from exploring different situations, zines, and people? Does he change in the end?

    Chew on This

    John explores a life with friends and fun, but only ends up getting hurt, so all told, Hard Love is a cautionary tale about exploration.

    Through Marisol's search for her world, she alienates the people who love her the most: her parents and John.