Warning – there will be spoilers in this review. Like, I’m going to tell you how it ends, because I don’t know how else to talk about it. Also, content warning for domestic violence and child abuse.
Lily leaves behind a difficult childhood and moves to Boston to start her own business. In the opening pages, she meets a man on her rooftop who is clearly angry and upset about something, and even though they have a “moment”, they never exchange information. Fast forward a few days, and she runs in to him again when her new employee summons him to check on Lily’s injured foot. It turns out her sullen and angry neighbor is Dr. Ryle Kincaid – a surgeon, actually – and he’d lost a patient the night of their rooftop meeting. They are thrown together again and again – her new employee is married to Ryle’s brother – and eventually, they begin a romance. And everything is going along swimmingly until Lily’s childhood friend Atlas Corrigan reappears, and Lily begins to see a side of Ryle she isn’t sure she likes. But then Lily finds herself pregnant, and is torn between forgiving Ryle or stopping a cycle she’s all too familiar with.
So that’s the book blurb.
The true gist of the story is that Ryle doesn’t think he can ever settle down with someone. He’s tortured, haunted by the lives he couldn’t save. But Lily is everything good in this world, sweet and kind and soft and warm. And so they embark on a love affair, and then when Atlas pops back up – in the form of a well-known chef at the hottest restaurant in town – we get a glimpse of poor Ryle’s tortured soul when he gets mad at Lily for…I’m not sure what? Not telling him about a teenage love affair? Not being a virgin even though she’s well in to her twenties? It’s never made clear, but Ryle’s a pretty possessive dude. So Atlas, being a survivor of childhood abuse (Lily, of course, saved him when he was younger), recognizes that Ryle’s got a short fuse, and slips Lily his number in case she ever needs him. Lily, not wanting to put the number in to her phone (red flag, there, Lil), slips the paper between her phone and the case, and forgets about it. Fast forward to a night when Lily and Ryle are goofing off in the kitchen, and Ryle accidentally burns his hand. Lily, not realizing the extent of the injuries (remember, he’s a neurosurgeon and so therefore his hands are his instruments), is caught up in the moment, still laughing, when Ryle hauls off and backhands her. It’s my recollection that she is too stunned, and he’s too apologetic, for much to come of it, but then, at some point later, Ryle discovers Atlas’ phone number tucked in the phone case, sees red, accuses Lily of infidelity, and things devolve from there. Atlas rescues Lily, who discovers she’s pregnant, and of course it’s Ryle’s baby. And Ryle swears it’ll never happen again, but Lily doesn’t want to take that chance, and wants to end the cycle, and so she agrees to co-parent but says they can never be together again.
I can list my issues with this novel – there are too many coincidences, too much convenience, too many things neatly wrapped up in bows – but that’s not what really bothers me about it. After all, we’ve all read the tale of the girl who moves to the city and opens a successful business in something like wallpaper hanging; it’s the same suspension of disbelief we have to employ with regard to how Monica and Rachel could have possibly afforded their giant purple apartment. And for awhile, I thought what bothered me about this book was how stereotypically the characters were written. Atlas is the strong, silent, protective type, Lily is the wide-eyed dreamer who desperately wants to fall in love, her employee is a bubbly, well-heeled, well-married, bored socialite looking for a job, and Ryle is the brooding and misunderstood brainiac neurosurgeon. I’m so sick of caricatures of these male characters. It was all just a bit too cookie-cutter. Real life is messier than that, more nuanced than that.
But I’ve been thinking about it, because that’s what I do, I overthink things, and what bothers me the most is the way the decision to end things was handled. From the beginning, there was something about Ryle that didn’t sit right with me, something that raised the hair on the back of my neck. And I couldn’t quite figure it out until the novel’s end, until the scene where Lily decided to end the cycle of abuse, and the catalyst for her doing so was when Ryle struck her. It wasn’t when he raised his voice to her, and it wasn’t when he accused her – baselessly – of infidelity. Nor was it when he went off and pouted and refused to take her phone calls. Nor was it any of the other moments where he behaved inappropriately. And it certainly wasn’t when he was needlessly aggressive the night they met on the rooftop.
We spend so much time talking to our friends, our sisters, and our daughters about abusive relationships, and you know what we focus on? If he hits you, you need to leave. Because that’s clear cut. It’s a line in the sand. You know that a boy hitting you is wrong, and you need to leave. We start teaching that long before our daughters are of dating age. But we don’t spend much time talking about the other sides of abuse. I mean, we might read Facebook quizzes and Buzzfeed lists about how “you might be in an abusive relationship if”, but it certainly doesn’t pertain to us. He was just tired, you see, from a long day at work, and you were on his case about something stupid. Of course he’s going to lose his temper. And besides, don’t all couples fight? And anyway, that list doesn’t mean us, because it says that he’d be taking away my money, or not letting me see my friends, and I still have all that. So this is no big deal. Except in some cases, it IS a big deal, and we don’t spend enough time talking about the more subtle signs of a troubled relationship. And when a book like this takes on abuse but action is only taken when physical abuse happens, it just reinforces that narrative.
I almost didn’t review this book. Not because it’s a tough subject matter, but because it wasn’t all that well written, and I don’t want to discourage conversations about abuse and stopping the cycle of violence, and I feared that if I said “this book wasn’t good”, then what will be read is, “this book wasn’t good because it was about domestic abuse”. That’s not why it wasn’t good; it just wasn’t…good. It’s so important to have good fiction that deals with this issue, but unfortunately, this just wasn’t it. Yes, in the end, Lily did was she was “supposed to”, she left Ryle, she chose not to continue the cycle, but somehow there was still something missing from the whole thing.
Plus, the whole thing was written in present tense, which drives me bananas.
More reviews found here.