Recently, I read Colleen Hoover’s best-seller It Ends With Us on audiobook. It’s something I do from time to time with books that are Very Buzzy, but I’m not necessarily interested enough to read them for review here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. I listen/read the audio a bit at a time, usually while I’m walking Fyodor Dogstoyevsky or doing the dishes. I didn’t plan on discussing the book here – what on earth could I say about this book that hasn’t been said already? – but some thoughts kept tumbling around in my head as I scooped and scrubbed with Lily Bloom’s story unfolding in my ears. So, here it is: a few thoughts on It Ends With Us and domestic violence.
A note on nomenclature
I went back and forth about what to call this post. “Domestic violence” has been a standard term for a long time, but in recent years, a lot of advocates and organisations have put forward preferred alternatives. There’s intimate partner violence, domestic abuse, coercive control – each with its own nuances and applications.
I decided to stick with “domestic violence”, purely because I did a little research and found that it seems to be what people most frequently Google when they’re looking for information about this topic, particularly in relation to It Ends With Us. I just wanted to flag that it’s not necessarily a term I prefer personally, or would use otherwise.
It Ends With Us: A brief summary
Also, before we go any further, I’m going to give you a quick summary of the plot of It Ends With Us (for readers, like me, who have been living under a rock and ignoring the incessant TikTok videos recommending this book).
Lily Bloom is unwinding after a difficult day at her father’s funeral when she meets Ryle Kincaid on a rooftop. She’s simultaneously repelled by and drawn to him. After another chance encounter or two, and a lot of flip-flopping about “not doing relationships” and “should we just fuck for fun”, they develop an intense romantic relationship.
The present-day relationship with Ryle is punctuated by Lily reading through her adolescent journals, styled as letters to Ellen DeGeneres, detailing her first love with an unhoused boy named Atlas, and her father’s physical and emotional abuse of her mother.
Around the mid-point of the novel, Ryle begins exhibiting violent behaviours in his relationship with Lily. The violence escalates, and Lily’s misgivings are soon too great to overcome. They separate when Ryle takes a temporary job overseas (he’s a neurosurgeon, by the way), and Lily discovers she is pregnant. She’s has to decide whether she should stay with Ryle, and risk perpetuating the cycle of abuse she witnessed between her own parents with their child, or whether she should leave their love behind.
I’m obviously leaving out a lot of back-story and side-plots and what-have-you, but you get the drift.
It Ends With Us and Domestic Violence
Alrighty, let’s get to it.
Criticism of It Ends With Us – some of it from very authoritative sources – stems from the view that it “romanticises” domestic violence. As I read it, though, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the way she depicted the insidiousness of violence in this kind of relationship.
When Lily meets Ryle, it’s all but a meet-cute. They connect, they are attracted to one another. He’s sweet and charming and wonderful. Even when their relationship progresses and Ryle’s violent tendencies begin to emerge, there are “reasons” why Ryle might behave this way. Lily works hard to shut down the cognitive dissonance that comes with the man she loves hitting her, and the reader is privy to all of that internal conflict.
The thing is, in the real world, that’s how a lot of domestic violence begins, too. It is romantic, in the start. The perpetrator isn’t always a perpetrator. Almost no one meets someone who seems violent and awful and thinks “Brilliant! My new romantic partner!”.
Similar points were made in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy that has always stuck with me (I highly recommend watching it if you want to see what I’m getting at here). People don’t fall in love with people who beat them or are cruel to them. They fall in love with someone who seems wonderful, who treats them well, and makes them feel loved and safe. It’s only later, often very gradually, that violence occurs. Victims aren’t stupid, they aren’t masochists, they aren’t oblivious. In many situations (obviously, not all, but many) they are charmed, they are romanced, they are woo’d by someone who seems to love them. By the time that they are cognizant of being abused, they have a lot invested in the relationship. To ignore the romance of relationships that turn violent is, ultimately, dangerous. If we’re only on alert for bad guys under the bed or behind the closet door, we’ll miss the danger that’s right in front of us.
Messages about domestic violence in It Ends With Us
A book like this going viral helps to counter some of myths about domestic violence and violent relationships. For instance, you can’t “pick” who is going to be violent towards their partner. They could be a wealthy, charming, respected neurosurgeon who compliments you all the time and fucks like a champion. Even in the marketing for It Ends With Us, this message is reinforced. It’s sold as a “romance novel” – but it isn’t. Ryle and Lily’s relationship appears to be a sexy romance – but it isn’t.
Hoover also depicts the essential the social support/safety net that is necessary for people to leave partners who are abusing them. Lily Bloom is in an incredibly privileged position: she has money, she has friends who believe her when she discloses her abuse, she has access to medical treatment for her injuries without interference, she considers involving law enforcement (although she ultimately doesn’t, she still feels she has that option available to her). She also seems aware – thereby, the reader is aware, too – of her privilege in each of these areas, and by extension, how disastrous it could be if even one of those pillars were to fall out from beneath her.
How could Colleen Hoover have depicted domestic violence better?
It Ends With Us isn’t perfect in terms of subverting expectations and up-ending cliches and stereotypes. It’s still domestic violence in a white, cis-het relationship, perpetrated by a man, and aligns to the old hurt-people-hurt-people trope. But did any of us really come to a best-selling romance novel expecting a critical treatise on the social models underpinning our understanding of domestic violence? Is it really fair to expect that from Hoover?
And besides: what’s the alternative?
Seriously. How could Hoover write about domestic violence in a way that is satisfactory to all? She could’ve had Ryle be a violent abuser from the very beginning, and maybe made him ugly or poor or drunk or… But, then, wouldn’t she be playing into a lot of the very same cliches that she does manage to subvert? How would the story play out, if she made those changes? How would Lily fall in love with him? All of the narrative justification falls over, and every reader Hoover has ever had would turn their nose up and move on to something sexier.
She could, of course, have portrayed domestic violence in a queer relationship – and faced an avalanche of criticism for writing outside her own perspective. Or made Lily more isolated, taking away the social support that enabled her to leave her abuser – and either doubled the length of the book to have Lily backflip out of that situation, or ended in misery. Or she could have removed Ryle’s traumatic back-story, giving him no supposed justification for his violence – and left a gaping wide hole in the side-plot of his sister’s sympathy for Lily’s situation.
Basically, there’s no perfect version of It Ends With Us that answers all criticisms levelled against it. I don’t think that means it should be disregarded in its entirety.
The ending of It Ends With Us: Resolving the domestic violence plot
This is where a lot of critics of the book really start to froth at the mouth.
Ryle and Lily end the story divorced, but peacefully co-parenting – a semi-redemptive arc where everyone ends up mostly happy. That’s actually a different way than I saw it going. I was deeply concerned that Hoover was going to have Ryle completely redeemed by the birth of his daughter, and the three of them (Ryle, Lilly, and Emmy) live happily ever after.
Instead, Lily has agency: she divorces Ryle, she builds her own life separate to him, while maintaining a cohesive family life for their child (at least initially). That’s a best-house-on-a-bad-block ending, as far as I’m concerned.
Of course, this scenario in real life would be risky, and fraught with legal issues regarding custody, but – let me remind you – this is a book. The narrative structure dictates some kind of resolution for the characters, and I think Hoover settled on an acceptable middle-ground, where the readers can be satisfied without Ryle’s perpetration of violence being forgiven and forgotten.
Is It Ends With Us, and its ending, 100% realistic? No. Is it a good read? Depends who you ask, but I didn’t find it particularly impressive. It is what it is: a popular fiction novel that deals with a difficult subject matter. It’s not an instruction book, it’s not an informational resource, and it’s not representative of all lived experiences of domestic violence—because it can’t be. It’s a novel. A very popular novel. One that, in my view, has been unfairly maligned due to its overexposure.
Colleen Hoover’s lived experience of domestic violence
I worry that some of the critics of It Ends With Us also set aside the fact that Hoover herself, as she outlines in her author’s note, has lived experience in this area. Her father was particularly abusive; Hoover’s earliest memory is of her father beating her mother. She wrote and published this story in close consultation with her mother, and with a lot of reflection about how this kind of relationship plays out. That doesn’t make her fiction immune to criticism, but I think it’s worth considering how it informs Hoover’s decisions about how to portray domestic violence in fiction.
And, just so you know, I’m not going to touch the colouring book issue – it’s been discussed to death already. Read more about it here, if you really want to.
Dissenting opinions on It Ends With Us and domestic violence
It only seems fair that I highlight some of the opinions of others regarding It Ends With Us and domestic violence, especially where they differ from my own.
I found Stop Praising Colleen Hoover’s ‘It Ends With Us’ on domesticshelters.org both detailed and straightforward.
I also came across this academic paper – The Simplification of Domestic Violence in Colleen Hoover’s It Ends With Us (2016) – on ResearchGate.
A young reader wrote Abuse Isn’t Sexy: the Romanticisation of Domestic Violence in Literature for Woroni.com.au.
And finally, this article – Let’s End This Obsession with ‘It Ends With Us’ – is frequently cited by others.
Resources for help
I’m not an expert in domestic violence (or, for that matter, Colleen Hoover novels). My own opinions here have been informed by a ten-year-old psychology degree (with first class honours, thank you) and a stint volunteering as a trained crisis counselor. I’m not your best resource for help, or even the best resource to find resources – but here are a few.
US: The Hotline
UK: How To Get Help
Australia: 1800 RESPECT
Canada: Get Help With Family Violence
South Africa: LifeLine South Africa