Content Warning: The following blog post is rife with spoilers about the novel “It Ends With Us.” Also, for those unaware, the book addresses the topic of abusive relationships, and there are multiple depictions of verbal, physical, and sexual assault. I think Colleen Hoover handled this topic with sensitivity and skill, but that may be a bit much for some readers. I also talk extensively about food in this post, so if you’re trying to avoid thinking about that, then you may want to save this post for another day.
“It Ends With Us” is a 2016 novel by Colleen Hoover. The book became massively popular through Booktok, a subset of TikTok dedicated to promoting and discussing literature. Other books have become famous hits through BookTok, including “Ice Planet Barbarians” by Ruby Dixon and “The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller. All of these books were published before 2020, but because of BookTok’s influence, they experienced a latent surge in popularity years after their initial release.
“It Ends With Us” is an interesting book that explores the nuances and emotional anguish within an abusive relationship. The main character, Lily Bloom, is a young, enterprising woman who dreams of opening a floral shop. Lily has a meet-cute with Ryle Kincaid, a charming, arrogant surgeon who “doesn’t like relationships.” He quickly becomes obsessed with her because this is a book. As their relationship blossoms, Lily encounters her first love, Atlas Corrigan, who is now a talented chef and the owner of the Boston restaurant “Bibs.” Atlas’ reappearance in her life complicates her relationship with Ryle, who, despite his good intentions, is also violently jealous of Atlas and his place in Lily’s heart.
“It Ends With Us,” is now a wildly popular novel, with a sequel titled “It Starts With Us” set for release in October 2022. “It Starts With Us” will be told from the perspective of Atlas Corrigan and will reveal more about his past, and I sincerely hope the book meets fan expectations. “It Ends With Us” will also be adapted into a movie by Justin Baldoni, and my yaiyai has already made me promise to fly to the Bay Area so I can escort her to a showing. I’ve finally read the book myself, after waiting more than six weeks for an audiobook copy to become available at my local library.
I thought the book was alright, although I did not “ugly cry” as Booktok promised. I think Hoover wrote about a complex topic with skill and compassion. Her characters were multifaceted, flawed, and human. I especially found her descriptions of Ryle, the brilliant man who loves Lily but begins to abuse her, to be complex and insightful. Ryle was not a one-dimensional villain, but a person who meant well and yet still hurt the woman he loved. The relationship between Lily and Ryle was not black and white but grey and messy, like many relationships. Even though Ryle is clearly at fault for the deterioration of their relationship, Lily still has moments of self-reflection where she contemplates her behavior and how her trauma influences her decisions.
So why did I think the book was just “alright”? Well, for starters, I found it a little too convenient that Ryle’s sister and a major character, Allysa, randomly walks into Lily’s flower shop on the first day, offers to work for her “even though she doesn’t need the money,” and then becomes Lily’s best friend. Allysa swans into the story like a fairy godmother, thrilled to offer time and physical labor to help a blossoming flower shop (no pun intended), all before we learn she’s Ryle’s younger sister. Honestly, most of Allysa’s storyline felt contrived in a way that may be more appropriate in a Hallmark movie.
I had other issues with the book, but one continues to gnaw at me, keeping me awake into the night: where is all the food?
Let me tell you a not-so-secret: I like to eat. A lot.
Food occupies a weird portion of my mind. A horrifying amount of my life is spent waiting to get hungry, so I can eat again. I would like to think of myself as a Foodie, but others might say, “gluttonous fat-ass.” I wouldn’t refer to myself as a worldly eater with a fabulously diverse palette, but I occasionally try to expand my horizons with new dishes. I especially love watching cooking videos from other countries and learning about new foods.
Food descriptions in literature are an underrated and vital part of the story. For example, “The Little House on the Prairie” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, a problematic series I love, has some of the most delectable, mouth-watering food descriptions I’ve ever read. Within her stories of life in the big woods and in the prairies of South Dakota, there are tales of the wild animals Pa shot and how Ma prepared these creatures, like by making a delicious Blackbird Pie. Sure, the food sounds good, but these descriptions also allow us to understand the daily lives of the Ingalls.
Pioneer life was a daily struggle. Food was scarce, and the Ingalls had to be creative to put food on the table. Killing blackbirds, a pest that destroyed their crops, and converting those pests into a meal, was the difference between a full stomach and starvation. Through Wilder’s writing, something as strange as blackbird pie sounds like a delicacy. The memory of eating this meat pie is infused with warmth and love. Many modern readers have difficulty imagining the challenges pioneers faced, but through these stories of what they ate, we get a deeper understanding of their lives.
Food descriptions are necessary for cultural context and help reveal more about the characters. Going back to Laura Ingalls Wilder, we understand through her writing that food was not always easy to come by. Laura’s happiest memories had two commonalities: family and food. The book “Farmer Boy” is the third in the series and is about Laura’s husband, Almanzo Wilder, as a child in Malone, New York. Unlike the Ingalls’, the Wilders were successful farmers with acres of farmland and herds of domesticated farm animals.
The food descriptions in “Farmer Boy” are the most elaborate in the series. The Wilders had an abundance of food at their table, and Almanzo could eat as much as he liked. And the food was rich, like birds’-nest pudding with sweetened cream and nutmeg. All of this incredible food contributed to Almanzo’s mental and physical well-being, painting the picture of a growing young boy surrounded by love, care, and prosperity.
These food descriptions also inform the character’s actions later in the series. For example, readers of the book “The First Four Years” may remember that Laura opposed marrying a farmer after watching her Pa struggle to support her family. Pa often went hungry to support his wife and four daughters. Almanzo had a vastly different experience growing up, which we know from his story. From his perspective, farming was a meaningful profession where hard work paid off generously. And as readers of that series also know, the first four years of Laura and Almanzo’s married life were marked by poverty, illness, and tragedy. As an adult, I struggled to reread this book because of how unrelentingly difficult their lives were. The food descriptions are not nearly as detailed in this last book.
An elaborate food description is not always necessary in every scene. For example, sometimes a sandwich is just a sandwich, and the reader doesn’t have to know if that sandwich has lettuce. However, there are times when those food descriptions are necessary. Like, for example, if your main love interest is a chef with a successful restaurant in Boston that the characters frequent.
When we’re first introduced to Atlas’s restaurant, Bib’s, it’s because Lily’s mother is a supposed foodie who has heard good reviews and wanted to try it out. By the end of the meal, according to Lily’s mom, Bib’s was her “new favorite restaurant,” and it was one of the best meals she ever had. So uh, what did she order that was so incredible? The book doesn’t say, only that it was good. In fact, the food is so good that the characters return to this restaurant again. Lily makes a snide comment about the bread being stale, but only because she sees Atlast waiting tables at that restaurant, and the experience is awkward that she never wants to return.
Girl, fair. I once saw my ex at a grocery store and literally ran out of the store to avoid him.
Atlas’ restaurant is so successful that it is written about in a Boston newspaper (Lily’s business also wins an award because tons of women in their early twenties own award-winning small businesses). And yet, despite this article, I still wasn’t even sure what kind of restaurant it was. If I were to guess, I would assume that Bib’s serves some kind of New England cuisine with a healthy selection of seafood options, like Union Oyster House. I am only basing this guess on the fact that the restaurant’s name is a reference to Boston.
I found this lack of description extremely disappointing, not just because it felt weirdly abrupt in a 375+ page book but also because it seems disingenuous to talk about the amazing city of Boston without referencing its cuisine. Food is culture and a vital part of the setting. I don’t expect Atlas to be an expert at making whoopie pies or lobster rolls, but it would have been helpful to at least know what Lily’s mom ordered that was so mind-blowing.
Though strangely, while annoying, the restaurant scenes weren’t what bothered me the most. No, that unique honor belongs to the scene where a teenage Atlas and Lily are in her home, and he says he’ll “make her something.” Immediately, my mind went to, “Oh hell yeah, he’s going to chef it up by making a nice pan-roasted chicken with sides or some other meal that’s complicated for a teenager but still recognizable to a midwestern reader.”
I knew he wouldn’t make xiaolongbao or coconut curry, but I expected something interesting. Instead, I read a description of Atlas “pouring things into bowls” before eventually revealing his mystery dish: cookies.
That was it. COOKIES. Out of all the food in the world, Atlas makes Lily some type of cookie. Cookies that she claims are the “best cookie she’s ever had.” A cookie so good that her father, the antagonist of the book, praises her for how good it is. The kind of cookie that she remembers for years later.
Y’all, what the hell kind of cookies did Atlas make? This passage made me furious. There are literally thousands of different cookie recipes. “Cookies” are not a single dessert, like Swedish Princess Cake, but rather they are both a snack and a dessert. Just looking up “cookies” on Wikipedia will lead you to a page stuffed with fascinating information about the scrumptious snack, including a detailed list of the varieties of cookies.
Look, I didn’t expect Atlas to say, “I’m making you Crème de la crème a la Atlas,” or “Kourabiedes,” because that would be ridiculous, but would it really have been so hard for Hoover to write “chocolate chip” in front of the word “cookies”? If he had just said what kind of cookies he was making, my curiosity would have been sated. Obviously, Atlas was restricted by the ingredients in Lily’s family kitchen, so he probably wasn’t making Pfeffernüsse or Coricos, but I would have liked to know.
I care because this moment mattered to Lily. This was one of the first scenes in the book where Atlas can show off his skill at cooking (though really, it’s baking). She says those cookies were the best she’d ever had, but what about the other cookies in her life? Did every other cookie pale compared to Atlas’ cookies, even if the recipe was drastically different? Would Lily refuse to eat fortune cookies or nankhatai because they could never compare to whatever Atlas made her?
Is there an alternate universe in which Lily goes to Bib’s, tries one of the cookies, and realizes that Atlas works there because only Atlas could make a cookie so indescribable? To assume that these cookies were chocolate chip cookies feels deeply Americentric, which is why I can’t let it go.
The scene where Atlas tells Lily he’s making “cookies” was like if an interior designer told you she wanted to paint your bedroom the color orange. Awesome, cool, except… there are a lot of different shades of orange. If this is your house, you want to know what shade of orange is on your walls. Also, it is usually pretty obvious if someone is whipping up a simple cookie batter. It’s not like I see someone pulling out butter, sugar, and flour and think, “huh, I wonder if they’re making moussaka.” It’s not a hugely impressive dish.
Atlas’s ability to cook is a part of his character. If anything, his cooking reinforces his personality’s warm, comforting, loyal nature. He is the man who will take care of people, especially Lily. So what does he like to cook? But Hoover’s inability to describe what he cooked left me confused and consistently took me out of the story.
Food is not a miscellaneous detail but an important part of the Chef’s identity. Bob Belcher from “Bob’s Burgers” makes artisanal burgers that go unappreciated by the people of his town, who’d rather eat the crap prepared by Jimmy Pesto. Caroline Ingalls prepares wild game and homemade bread for her family. The Swedish Chef makes weird nonsense to accompany his gibberish. Babette Hersant from “Babette’s Feast” prepares a sumptuous feast with turtle soup and fine wine to serve to the kind women who took her in when she needed a home. Remy the Rat makes Ratatouille, a simple peasant dish that packs a symphony of flavor.
Atlas Corrigan makes… food. And some kind of cookies. See the difference here?
“It Ends With Us” is still a good book. As I said, many aspects of the story deserve praise, and I completely understand why people love it. Unfortunately, I was not one of those people, but mostly because I was pulled out of the story. I also understand that I may be alone in my feelings about the importance of food in a story, but I stand by the occasional importance of it.
Food is not just about satisfying hunger. It is cultural, social, and psychological. A well-prepared meal can transport you to a different time and place. Food can bind us together and help us discover commonalities.
I do not think that every author needs to include full recipes in their novels. These are books, not cooking blogs trying to take advantage of SEO. But if your main character is a chef, and if that character makes a life-altering cookie the other main character remembers for the rest of her life, then it may be a good idea to tell us what kind of cookie they’re eating.