The following contains spoilers for It Ends With Us, by Colleen Hoover
Content Warnings: Domestic violence, abuse, alcoholism, trauma
I am an avid believer in visibility surrounding the issue of domestic violence. As a survivor myself, I am pretty keen on keeping conversations around this topic truthful and nuanced.
I, like most people who frequent BookTube or BookTok, have read Colleen Hoover’s most popular novel, It Ends with Us, which centers around Lily Bloom, a woman who grew up with an alcoholic father who abused her mother, only to later find herself in an abusive relationship herself in adulthood.
Many people online claim that this novel “romanticizes abuse” and I think that is a broad misconception for a couple of reasons. One, the book was largely marketed as a “romance novel” (which it is not) and so folks picked this book up with no actual context of what this book is about. While I think there is valid critique around how this was marketed, I think the blame there must be aimed at the publishing company and not Hoover herself or the book. If it were marketed as women’s fiction instead of a romance, I think the overall perception of this novel would have been more in line with the content it explores.
Two, Lily Bloom is an unreliable narrator, meaning that we cannot trust her accounting of what goes on. Most of the time when we read a story from the perspective of an unreliable narrator, that character is morally gray at best. Lily presents in a different realm of this trope; she is unreliable because we are getting her narration when she is in the middle of this relationship, not on the outside of surviving the abuse. When people are in abusive relationships, there is a tendency to only see the good in your abuser or to make excuses, because the way in which you are manipulated throughout the abuse clouds your judgment. I actually think that Lily is an incredibly relatable character because the things she has done to try to excuse Ryle’s behavior are things I absolutely did when I was in my abusive relationship. I have talked to many other survivors who also saw a lot of themselves in Lily’s character.
The book does emphasize that Ryle has a lot of trauma, and does seem to really dwell on that point throughout. I can see both sides of the argument here. While I do know firsthand how trauma can be used by abusers to justify their actions, I also see that throughout this novel Ryle acknowledges and sets out to work through his issues. I think we often stray away from humanizing abusers and while I understand why that is the case, I also believe that the more we shy away from acknowledging what gets people into such a position, the less of a chance we have of preventing it from happening. My ex was abused as a child and it definitely played a major role in why he did the things he did to me and multiple others. While he has taken no responsibility for his actions, I do want to emphasize how important it is to have well-rounded and nuanced conversations, something which can be done much more safely in the context of fictional characters. That being said, you absolutely do not need to forgive, let alone invite back into your life, the people who have abused you. Full stop.
I disagree with Lily remaining friends with him and having joint custody of the baby, but this is also colored by the fact that in most real life domestic violence situations, abusers aren’t trying to work through their trauma as Ryle is. It is hard to gauge how I feel about his arc. I can say for certain it is a largely unrealistic plot, yet I also want to hold space for understanding where these things come from, and how we can prevent abuse in the future in real life.
I can understand people being upset about all of this, but what is important to me is that this book does not glamorize abuse in the slightest. Actually, the folks online claiming it does undermine their point by going on and on about how no one would want to go through what Lily went through. That in and of itself tells us this is not an issue of romanticizing or glamorizing, it is the opposite.
Now, a lot of people have issues with Hoover herself. She hasn’t handled criticisms of her work well, and there are many other books she has written that I feel are problematic in theme and reasoning. It is absolutely reasonable to have issues with Hoover’s books or just not like them, but the attacks on this book in particular seem to be misplaced, ill-informed and generally incorrect.
In this context, we can sort of use “glamorizing” and “romanticizing” interchangeably. These terms refer to when a medium (in this case, a book) makes a traumatic or dangerous event(s) look like a fun or desirable experience. There are many books that glamorize or romanticize depression or mania (think the manic-pixie-dream-girl trope). Glamorizing makes these awful things look like a good time, which is not the case in the relationship between Lily and Ryle.
Unfortunately, once a certain term hits the online zeitgeist, it tends to become watered down and misused. If you find yourself looking to utilize the terms “glamorize” or “romanticize”, please consider doing more research on the things you are criticizing and what the meaning of the words truly stem from.
In the end, I think It Ends With Us actually does an incredible job of showing what life looks like in the middle of an abusive relationship, albeit with the ending being a less than ideal story arc. I would suggest going into the book familiar with the content warnings and know it is NOT a romance book. It is harrowing and dark, especially if you have been through similar experiences.