At the start of the novel, Lily Bloom is a 23-year-old, reflecting on the life of her abusive father in the hours after she buries him. Lily is young, thoughtful, and bold, seeking to strike out on her own and make a life for herself that is as different from her parents’ as possible. She is driven and wants to succeed in her career and to find love, but her tumultuous upbringing often holds her back, making her doubt herself and question what she deserves, especially romantically. When Lily meets the handsome, passionate Ryle, they enter into a flirtation that destabilizes Lily and quickly begins to push against her own boundaries. For example, in the face of Ryle’s immediate, unnuanced seduction, Lily questions whether she could have a one-night stand, something she’d never before considered herself open to. As her relationship with Ryle evolves, Lily gets caught up in a whirlwind romance, the contours of which begin to resemble her parents’ abusive relationship.

In the midst of this intensely passionate relationship, Lily also begins to read back over her teenage journals about her first love, Atlas. The journals show that as a teenager, Lily is kind, generous, thoughtful, and innocent, and as soon as she discovers the teenage Atlas in need, she goes out of her way to help him. Lily is also a lonely teen, separated from her peers by the secret of her violent household, and Atlas and Lily become fast friends and eventually fall in love. Lily and Atlas take turns protecting and helping each other, and theirs is a relationship built on love, trust, gentleness, and mutual respect. When Lily’s father beats Atlas with a baseball bat, something innocent in Lily is crushed, and she spends much of her adulthood heartbroken, both by the violence her father committed and by the loss of Atlas, who promised to come back for her and never did. 

As Ryle increasingly resembles her father, Lily must choose between a life that looks like her childhood and the unknown of being on her own. By choosing to strike out on her own, Lily breaks the cycle of violence that she’s been caught in. When things are solid in her life, as she’s running a successful career and raising her daughter, Atlas returns to her, and they are both ready to continue the love they started as teens. In a sense, Atlas and Lily are each other’s reward for doing the hard work of healing and breaking free from the traumas of their pasts.