The recent success of Netflix’s hit Bridgerton has surely caused a few people to sit up and take notice of the often-forgotten awkward cousin of adult fiction – romance in all its myriad forms, whether historical, contemporary or a mixture of the two. Despite bringing in the sales, romance is not a genre many will publicly claim to read or have knowledge of in highbrow literary circles. Frankly, I find this strange, considering rom-com films, TV shows and books are a staple for pop culture. It’s the backbone of every great TV show (unrequited love triangle anyone?) and the sub plot of many a mystery, thriller and yes, even the (sometimes pompous) literary fiction.
Regardless, label a book a romance and the question I get most often is, but what else does it have? Because of course one element is so passé. It Ends With Us is a romance, it also broaches the murky subjects of domestic abuse, rape and homelessness. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was about to read, this being only my second novel by Colleen Hoover. The first was Verity which I devoured, but it was a departure from her romance roots, being a subversive thriller foremost with a hint of romance. It Ends With Us has the teen love story of Atlas and Lily told via old journal entries contrasted with the adult romance between Lily and Ryle.
Lily’s teenage relationship with her parents and Atlas inform much of her adult life. She’s moved from her childhood town in Maine to Boston, worked through college and is on the cusp of starting a new business when the story begins. The chapters move through weeks and months at a time, always noting where we are in the present day. At first I found this annoying but gradually it was comforting to know how much time had elapsed. Kind of like flicking through photo albums where dates are marked. Without filling this review with spoilers, I’ll note the following – Lily hasn’t had many serious relationships when we pick up in the present day. Ryle is a young neurosurgeon, nearing the end of his residency. Lily is interested in serious dating, Ryle isn’t. They are drawn to each other from a shared love of ‘naked truths’, those awkward things that we all think but don’t say – except these two do, from the onset of their acquaintance. Their first meeting is actually temptuous yet kind of cool.
Atlas and Lily befriend each other when she is 15 and he is 18. Atlas is homeless, taking shelter in an abandoned house behind Lily’s. There is nothing nefarious here. In fact, I found myself tearing up several times as Lily read through the diary entries. Lily is an only child and often left to her own devices. They form a friendship and gradually it develops into more. The compassion and kindness in their relationship is told via an innocence that really left the modern romance behind. Their separation was heartbreaking and when they run into each other in modern day Boston, my heart was in my mouth.
There’s more to this book then the romance and obvious love triangle. There’s social commentary around how an 18-year-old ends up homeless in his final year of high school. The repercussions of domestic abuse on the child and the adult they grow into. My one qualm is with Ryle’s storyline – his behaviour didn’t need justification and I didn’t feel that we needed to excuse it any way. At the same time, he is a three-dimensional character and regardless of what I thought of him, giving him layers does add to the overall novel and emotions I felt as a reader.
(Not just for making me cry, but for making me laugh and think about issues that I hadn’t in a long time.)