I’ll get this out of the way — I didn’t like this book very much. Explaining why will lead me on several tangents, so before you continue, understand that this is part review and part aimless wandering about random talking points. If you want a straightforward take on this book you’ll have to go elsewhere. I’ll be spoiling major plot points, so be forewarned of that as well.
I became aware of It Ends with Us when it won the Goodreads Choice 2016 Award in the Romance category. Because romance is such a varied genre and people have very pronounced and specific preferences about what they like, I’ve tended to stick with a collection of trusted authors and further rely on trusted sources (looking at y’all!) to fill my reading list. Reading It Ends with Us was an experiment with a new (to me), very popular author, and while I (fortunately) didn’t have the same viscerally negative reaction to this as I did to, say, 50SoG, I’m nonetheless disappointed that this book swept the romance category, for a handful of reasons.
Reason the first and most petty: I’m not sure it really qualifies as “romance,” the structure of which typically involves an A plot following the (usually) two romantic leads and the formative journey of their relationship. Romances always have a happy ending, whether it’s a “happily ever after” or a “happy for now”. That ending is understood to apply to the couple who are the focus of the A plot. This book’s A plot is the entire lifecycle of one relationship from beginning to end, and it’s only the B plot that gets an implied “happy for now” ending. While in the literal sense there is a romance that ends happily in this book, it’s not the focus, and that’s really not the point of the genre. It Ends with Us is more accurately categorized as the nebulous “New Adult” or “Women’s Fiction,” neither of which have a fairly strict set of rules regarding the story content.
Reason the second and more substantial: it seems that a great deal of the acclaim for this book comes out of the fact that the heroine, Lily, who grew up in an abusive home, is herself able to leave her increasingly abusive relationship, which makes this into a real “message book” about “tough issues.” And, to be sure, Hoover writes about the topic with sensitivity and brings nuance to the conversation about why women don’t just immediately leave their abusers. But what starting first as a creeping bad feeling of mine turned into full-on discomfort as I started to realize that the acclaim from readers and fans wasn’t just in recognition of Lily’s bravery and the value of having her struggle portrayed; it also put forth the suggestion that Lily’s husband Ryle “becoming” abusive was some kind of surprising plot twist, and that the emotional gut punch was so affecting because no one could have seen it coming from such a wonderful guy.
To me, it wasn’t a surprise. To me, it was there in the text all along, and it is really upsetting and disappointing to me that, apparently, abusive behavior is so normalized in romance/fiction (to say nothing of real life), that this stuff was not apparent at first glance. Lily first meets Ryle when they both, independently, go up to a rooftop to be by themselves. Ryle, not realizing Lily was there, starts throwing patio furniture around in obvious anger. Rather than being scared, as I would be, and trying to get out of there, Lily continues to watch him, noticing how attractive he is. When they eventually strike up their conversation, he’s charming but obviously tortured, and the two of them take turns sharing deeply personal information that breeds a false sense of intimacy because, emotional anecdotes aside, they don’t *actually* know each other. The interaction ends with Ryle trying to seduce Lily, more or less. He doesn’t get very far, but that’s more because they were eventually interrupted than anything else. He tries this despite her saying earlier to him, rather plainly, that she’s not a one-night stand kind of person, so his method of seduction starts along the lines of “How far would you go?” and trying to proceed from there.
Now, I just related all of that in a fairly unsexy way, so perhaps to you, reading it through my lens, it sounds exactly as alarming as I felt it was. But when you think about it, how many romances are written like this, and it’s portrayed as mysterious and alluring that a man is all full of pent-up violence and only the heroine can calm him down? I won’t say definitively that Colleen Hoover was trying to make this a meet cute because, for all I know, she actually had intended for the orange and red flags to be there all along, and it wasn’t her fault that so many don’t perceive them as such. Signs of Ryle’s bad temper, jealousy, and possessiveness continue to pop up all throughout the advancement of their relationship, before he ever lays hands on Lily, and the fact that all of these things are so apparently indistinguishable from the “regular” mercurial traits of mainstream romantic alpha heroes is disturbing to me.
It Ends with Us wasn’t *horrible* — as I said, Hoover may have been intentionally paving the way for what was to come re: Ryle, but even if she wasn’t, she wasn’t writing Ryle as a romantic lead before his “reveal” any more irresponsibly than hundreds of other authors have — but I do think the dramatic subject matter and bombastic moral message provided quite a bit of cover for an otherwise formulaic romance and story that relied heavily on cliches. Lily is a perfectly competent, plucky heroine, but when it comes down to it, her primary attributes are that she’s empathetic/nurturing, and that she came from an abusive household. Aside from the latter, there’s not much that distinguishes her from thousands of her other NA counterparts.
The elements that tried to set this book apart other than the abuse angle felt kind of tacked-on and twee as well. There’s this weird running joke about how her new best friend (Ryle’s sister) and her husband are super, duper rich, but they’re “good rich”: despite having “people” to do everything, they still donate to charity. It’s just weird how many times this comes up as a comedic tangent, how rich they are and how much of a joke it is that they’re rich. Lily’s full name is Lily Bloom, and she loves to garden, so she jokes that she was destined to open a flower shop. So she does. I don’t know, I’m not saying that literally every NA heroine has a cutesy name and runs a flower shop, but it just seems like exactly the type of young creative pretty feminine thing that a NA heroine would do. Also, there’s the mother of all tropes, the whoopsie baby: after Ryle has beat Lily so badly that she ends up hospitalized, she finds out from the doctor that she’s pregnant.
Additionally, the over-reliance on Lily reading letters from her past self as a plot device came across as a very sneaky, lazy way to fill in character backstory in the form of infodumps. The whole B plot, that I haven’t even yet talked about, is that as a teenager, Lily discovers that one of the boys at her school, Atlas, appears to be homeless, seeking shelter in an abandoned house behind her parents’ property. She starts feeding, clothing, and sheltering him to the best of her ability, which was difficult to do under the nose of her abusive father. They eventually develop major feelings for each other, and Lily loses her virginity to him. All of this is revealed through letters that Lily wrote, but obviously never sent, to Ellen Degeneres, because she was a fan of the show and just found Ellen to be enough of an important figure to be the figurative recipient of her diary entries. The problem was, they just didn’t feel organic, to me, the way they were employed. They existed to lay the groundwork for Lily and Atlas’ second-chance, but it’s like this book thought it was too cute for simple flashback sections, so it had to construct this extra framework of, like, “We’re going to tell the past through LETTERS!”
In general, I’m just not predisposed to be very charitable toward this type of book, that follows a very basic, pedestrian storyline but uses heavy emotional manipulation around a major issue to give it depth it wouldn’t otherwise have. I feel a little bad coming down so hard on it because I feel that Colleen Hoover was writing in good faith and trying to bolster the strength of women in bad situations, but it just didn’t work for me in totality.