It Starts With Us
By Colleen Hoover
Simon and Schuster, US
ISBN: 978-1398518179
352pp.

The wildly popular beach-read It Ends With Us by American author Colleen Hoover had fans clamouring for a sequel, so the author graciously obliged by writing a new chapter to her heroine Lily’s life. The result is It Starts With Us.

In the prequel, Lily is married to successful neurosurgeon Ryle and, although her relations with his family are good and remain so throughout, the couple’s own relationship is doomed the moment she realises that, if she continues to stay in the marriage, she will be a victim of consistent — and dangerous — domestic violence.

It Starts With Us picks up from where the previous novel left off. We find Lily coping with being a single mother to a year-old infant, Emerson. She has full custody of the child and has generously granted her ex-husband visitation rights. But although Ryle appears to have made peace with the divorce, he is far from happy when Lily resumes her friendship with her old flame and first love, Atlas.

We are told that when Lily and Atlas first got to know each other, they were both very young. He was in no position then to sustain a relationship, having run away from an abusive mother. Essentially kind-hearted and driven, Atlas has since then made a success of his life and when It Starts With Us starts, we find that he is a well-regarded chef and restaurant owner.

In a sequel to the hugely popular ‘chick-lit’ novel It Ends With Us, the author satisfies her audience’s desire for romance and happy endings

Atlas and Lily are bound together not simply by ties of sexual chemistry, but also by empathy born out of intensely difficult personal circumstances: abuse at the hands of a loved one. Ryle, in his more jealous moods, suspects Lily has always been in love with Atlas, but she repeatedly affirms this is not the case.

However, she equally assiduously asserts her right as a free, single woman to now date whomever she pleases. This does not sit well with her ex-husband, whose temper flares up again to the point where Lily insists that he get anger management training in order to cope with the new situation.

What is heart-warming in the novel is the support system Hoover builds around her heroine. Admittedly, Lily’s mother is simply a mild and gentle character who remains rather underdeveloped over the course of the book. But Ryle’s sister Alyssa is sympathetic towards Lily’s predicament and indicates firmly to her brother that, while she loves him, she wishes to help his former wife.

Emerson is affectionately cared for by all and sundry; not a single major character in the book is anything less than doting where she is concerned. On a somewhat different level, Atlas finds himself taking care of his half-brother Josh, who suffers the same treatment at the hands of their unpleasant and self-absorbed mother that Atlas himself did when younger.

Despite Josh being only 12 years old, he has sadly been forced to grow up far too fast and too soon. The noble-spirited Atlas takes a genuine interest in his young sibling’s welfare and in protecting him and, at a particularly poignant juncture in the novel, informs their mother that she has never got to know either of her sons or made herself aware of their interests.

Josh, for example, is a huge fan of the Japanese art form of manga, but his mother is clueless about this, among many other things. In fact, spray-painting graffiti on the walls of Atlas’s restaurant is the boy’s desperate way of getting his elder brother’s attention. Atlas, for his part, not only forgives the vandalism, but determinedly takes charge of rehabilitating Josh, getting him to follow a structured school routine and develop a healthy set of habits.

Lily and Atlas’s relationship gains momentum and both fall deeply in love with each other. In spite of the occasionally saccharine sweetness with which Hoover portrays this development, the relationship effectively offsets some of the novel’s decidedly grimmer moments.

Certainly Hoover is writing to please romantic readers, who are rooting for Lily and Atlas and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a bestselling author feeding her audience whatever most pleases its literary palate. In this manner, the author is almost as skilled a chef as Atlas who, during a meeting with his mother, takes care to cook her favourite dish — coconut shrimp — so that she becomes more amenable to what he wants to say to her about Josh and himself.

Varying between Lily’s and Atlas’s unique viewpoints, It Starts With Us is remarkably easy to read and commendably well-structured. As we alternatively get first her view and then his, we see how they have managed to make a success of their relationship the second time around because both have gone through trials and hardships, and emerged all the more stronger and wiser.

Perhaps, though, it would have been more realistic for Hoover to not have tied everything up towards the end with an iridescent rainbow-coloured bow. But then, that’s not the agenda. The novel is not meant to be realistic so much as one long, extended pep-talk to satisfy her readers’ need to escape into a world of words, where things go well for the good guys, and even the bad ones aren’t put through too much suffering.

Since the explosive success of British author Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones books, chick-lit has grown so immensely in popularity that some people — especially women in their 20s and 30s — exhibit an almost insatiable appetite for it.

Like the works of writers such as Sophie Kinsella and Marian Keyes, Colleen Hoover’s books are formulaic and often too frothy for comfort, but it would be uncharitable to state that they have no place in the world of fiction. Such books are the literary equivalent of drugs that have a light and pleasant effect on one.

It is all too easy to get addicted to them but, by and large, their effect on one’s psyche is harmless, if not exactly mind-improving.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 26th, 2023

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