Content warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of rape and sexual assault.
The quote on the cover of Colleen Hoover’s bestselling novel, It Ends With Us, claims, “Every person with a heartbeat should read this book.” It was the sixth best-selling book of 2021, BookTok is going nuts over it and USA Today called it “the kind of book that gets handed down.” Its much-anticipated sequel, It Starts with Us, is set to be released next month.
The novel centers on the relationship between Lily and Ryle, a young newlywed couple who live in Boston. Lily is a successful entrepreneur, and Ryle is a gifted neurosurgeon. Both had traumatic childhoods: Lily grew up witnessing her father physically and sexually abuse her mother and was eventually victimized by him herself; when Ryle was 6 years old, he accidentally shot and killed his beloved older brother with a gun that should never have been accessible. Both halves of the couple are, understandably, haunted by their pasts.
Early in their marriage, Ryle begins to physically abuse Lily. Hoover offers a compelling perspective on how the violation and blurring of boundaries over time creates a dynamic in which victims lose the ability to see their situations clearly. Readers who ask, “Why would she stay with him?” may find some insight in this book.
Though cocky and manipulative from the start, Ryle is portrayed as a man who desperately wants to be good but is tormented by inner demons. This is, of course, a tired cliché that’s too often applied to abusive men. The first two incidents of abuse occur in “heat of the moment” scenarios in which Ryle loses his temper. Lily suffers cuts, bruises and a concussion severe enough to render her unconscious, but tells herself that “all humans make mistakes” and that “everyone deserves another chance.”
The third incident, however, reveals Ryle to be sadistic, pre-meditating and cruel. It is not an example of a poor tortured soul who loses control; on the contrary, it’s a chilling portrayal of a calculated and violent sexual attack.
Ryle discovers Lily has kept a small gift—a refrigerator magnet—given to her by her high school boyfriend. This enrages him with jealousy, and when she returns home that evening, he is waiting for her in the dark, holding the magnet. He initiates a sexual encounter with Lily, and while digitally penetrating her with one hand and pulling her hair to the point of pain with the other, demands she tell him who gave her the magnet. She asks him to stop because he is hurting her, and he responds by choking her and forcing himself upon her. He then pauses and directs her to take her shirt off and read aloud to him a recent newspaper article about the ex-boyfriend’s current success; this is frightening and humiliating for Lily, but she is too afraid to disobey. What follows is a rape attempt that results in multiple physical injuries including a scream-inducing bite and a head-butt that knocks Lily unconscious. Throughout the attack, Ryle is “disturbingly calm.”
During the time Lily is unconscious, Ryle “snaps out of it,” then expresses remorse. But there’s a logic problem here: Ryle never “snapped into it.” He planned this attack. He set it up, waited for Lily, then carried it out almost methodically. He even claims, during the rape attempt, he is doing it because “I haven’t proved to you how much I love you.” This is not a good guy with a bad temper—this is a monster. And now, there’s a complicating factor.
While being treated in the ER for her injuries after the attack, Lily learns she is pregnant. She enters another cycle of agonizing over what to do, whether there’s any hope for their family, how to reconcile the fact that she still loves Ryle with the knowledge he will turn on her. Ultimately, Lily remains strong and decides to divorce Ryle, to break the cycle (thus, “it ends with us”). If the book ended there, we could cheer her survival and courage.
But at the end of the novel, which takes place a year later and which Hoover clearly intends to be a redemption scene, we see Lily and Ryle, amicably divorced and co-parenting their daughter. In that scene, Ryle, who is a violent sex offender, is picking up the baby for “his days with her.”
Lily can’t be given a pass for not understanding the danger of this situation. She even asks, “What kind of mother would I be if a small part of me doesn’t have concern in regard to your temper?” Ultimately, she reasons that “despite what has happened between us in the past, he’s still this baby’s father. He has the legal right to be a father, no matter how I feel about it.”
This isn’t necessarily accurate. Section 31A of the Massachusetts state legislature notes that where physical or sexual violence has occurred between parents, any form of unsupervised visitation or custody with the abusive parent is considered “contrary to the best interest of the child” and generally not permitted. The fact that Lily doesn’t press charges doesn’t change the reality of what happened; it just means reality isn’t documented.
Lily ultimately decides that “parents have to work through their differences and bring a level of maturity into a situation in order to do what’s best for their child.” But Ryle is not a guy who simply “has differences” with his child’s mother—a disagreement about allotted screen time or number of hours spent in daycare. He’s a dangerous criminal with a history of manipulating and victimizing women.
One reviewer described this book as “raw, honest, inspiring, and profoundly beautiful.” It could have been—it maybe almost was. But like too many books and movies, It Ends With Us feeds into the very structures of toxic masculinity that it purports to combat. It romanticizes red flags and glorifies a charismatic-but-dangerous man (he’s complicated! he’s damaged!) and it ultimately delivers a decidedly anti-feminist message.
Lily’s decision to co-parent with Ryle is not redemptive; it’s a blatant shirking of the barest parental responsibility—the responsibility to protect her daughter. Colleen Hoover has no moral or ethical obligation to write role models, and we don’t need to agree with the actions of a fictional heroine. But the scope of Hoover’s platform and the age of her readers renders her books fair game for honest critique, and for reasons I still don’t understand, It Ends With Us keeps getting a pass.
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