Content Warning: this article contains mentions of domestic abuse which some readers may find upsetting
Government guidance on dealing with domestic abuse: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/domestic-abuse-how-to-get-help
Refuge (National Domestic Abuse Helpline): https://www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk
When discussing Colleen Hoover’s portrayal of abuse, any CoHo fan’s mind would immediately go to her novel It Ends with Us (2016). For anyone who hasn’t come across this book before – which would surprise me immensely if you’re on BookTok – it follows Lily Bloom, a young florist in Boston, who meets and swiftly falls in love with a neurosurgeon, Ryle Kincaid. Throughout the book, Lily is forced to confront the trauma in her past and decide whether she can live with making the same choices her mother made. Focussing on the complex themes of love, its boundaries and domestic abuse, It Ends with Us is a timely exploration of the disturbing intersection between pleasure and pain. However, as Hoover forces us to read challenging and uncomfortable situations, a reader must ask: do her books simply expose abusive behaviour, or do they threaten to glamorise abuse experienced by young women?
With the characterisation of Ryle Kincaid, Lily’s initial situation is certainly glamorised: Ryle is described as a handsome, caring, and alluring young man, a reputation he maintains until a few months into his relationship with Lily. As a first-time reader, I was convinced that Ryle was the primary love interest and so I romanticised him in my mind to no end – indeed, it’s hard to resist someone who is “stylish, well spoken, and smart” (13). This false sense of trust we feel compelled to place in Ryle’s character, appears to me to be a deliberate choice. From their first meeting, Lily’s first-person narrative voice describes Ryle using language of vulnerability which juxtaposes his tough outward appearance: “broad shoulders create a strong contrast to the fragile way he’s holding his head in his hands” (8). Whilst it seems counterintuitive to describe an abuser as “fragile”, this is the first instance in which Hoover complicates the binary between “bad” or “good” – you cannot judge someone based on their appearance, or even on their body language, because people are more complex than a singular label.
When Lily first sees Ryle, she is perched on the ledge of a Boston rooftop, and she thinks to herself “I’m too comfortable right now to be on a rooftop alone with a strange man … I might fear for my safety and feel the need to leave” (7). As with any good use of foreshadowing, it was only when I reread the book that I was practically screaming at my copy for Lily to follow her instincts. But, of course, she doesn’t, because he has offered no blatant signals that he is an unsafe person to be around. There may be so-called “red flags”, but again, they are subtle enough that they would only become evident to the reader if, like me, they chose to reread the book. Hoover’s shrewd method is to make the reader trust and fall in love with Ryle, just as Lily does, thus dispelling for them a common (and extremely harmful) misconception about domestic abuse victims: that they should simply not have started dating their abuser in the first place. Lily, just like so many real-life domestic abuse victims, trusts a man who appears to be as good-natured as she is. Thus, in creating a seemingly ideal man whom the reader can fall for, Hoover exposes the baselessness of victim-blaming and conveys, in no uncertain terms, that the blame should be laid entirely at the abuser’s door.
“Dispelling a common (and extremely harmful) misconception about domestic abuse victims: that they should simply not have started dating their abuser in the first place”
What makes Hoover’s depiction of domestic abuse so apt is that she does not have Ryle’s character change completely after the first instance of violence: this is a painfully honest depiction of real-life, not a childish tale of bad guys versus good guys. The stereotype of the abuser being an entirely bad person is shown to be less black-and-white than one might expect. The first time Ryle is violent towards Lily, for instance, happens suddenly and unexpectedly. Lily’s thoughts following the incident are influenced by the kind and tender way in which Ryle treats her afterwards: “he brushes his hand down my cheek and I can see in his eyes and in the way he touches me that he deserves at least one chance at forgiveness” (151). Here, Hoover dismisses yet another harmful misconception: that an abuse victim should have left their abuser when they were first attacked. This is an unrealistic expectation and Hoover spotlights the methods which real abusers use to cement their relationship with their partner, manipulate them, and thus ensure they never leave. In this way, Hoover exposes that an abuser might be someone who possesses good qualities most of the time. Yet, she is also brutally honest in conveying that an abuser’s good side doesn’t matter: if someone is abusing you, no matter how much of a “good” person you believe they are, it is not okay.
Hoover highlights the importance of prioritising your own safety and wellbeing above your instinct to care for someone who is also working through trauma. This means that Ryle does not gain redemption in the sequel, It Starts with Us (2022), as Hoover told Shondaland in 2022: “I worried that extending the book in any way would redeem characters I did not want redeemed”. She also states that in writing this sequel, she was “mimicking some of her mother’s journey”, which is why the portrayal of Lily as a strong mother-figure was so close to her heart. This decision to draw from her own experience is also the reason why Hoover claims she chose to maintain the ties between Ryle and Lily (as they co-parent their daughter, Emmy): as her mother, and many other domestic abuse victims, experienced, a clean break is not always possible.
“Hoover highlights the importance of prioritising your own safety and wellbeing above your instinct to care for someone who is also working through trauma”
In addition to these two novels, Hoover’s Hopeless (2012) also deals with the topic of abuse. While this novel did not gain as much attention as It Ends with Us, it is still a relevant representation of Hoover’s treatment of this topic. Hopeless tells the story of a young woman, Sky, who has been home-schooled for almost her entire life and, when she starts attending a public high school, she meets a boy named Dean Holder, with whom she begins a relationship. Throughout the novel, Hoover deals with the themes of love, loss, and healing as Sky and Holder navigate their past traumas together. Hoover’s portrayal of the sexual abuse that Sky suffered is extremely raw and exposes the emotional and physical toll such experiences can take on someone. Furthermore, the recurrent efforts to highlight the importance of supportive relationships throughout the narrative display Hoover’s attempts to educate us on, rather than to exploit, stories of abuse.
It would be an entirely unfair to say Hoover’s novels glamorise abuse. The scenes in which instances of physical abuse are described are chilling. Hoover deliberately writes these moments to startle, frighten, and disgust her reader, showing honestly the ugly side of relationships. When I first read the scene in It Ends with Us in which Ryle asks Lily where she got her new fridge magnet, my heart stopped. Hoover writes to educate, fighting against harmful myths about abuse and displaying the importance of attempting to heal and ask for support from others. Lily’s happy ending comes from (as the very title of the book suggests) putting a stop to the cycle of abuse which began with her mother and father. Maintaining the honesty of her writing, when Lily looks into the face of her new-born baby girl and makes her a promise to leave Ryle, she is not magically healed in an instant. But she takes the first and most crucial step away from the trauma of her past and towards the life which she and her daughter deserve.
Image credit: JeLuF via Wikimedia Creative Commons