The Complexity of Love and Abuse

Throughout the novel, the nexus of love and abuse is confusing, often leaving characters stuck in painful relationships. The first example is the serious abuse of Lily’s mother throughout her marriage to Lily’s father. This abuse casts a pall over their household, as Lily’s father, Andrew, gets upset over the smallest things, such as Jenny parking in the garage or having a conversation at a party. This leaves Jenny terrified to make even the smallest decisions, afraid that it will invoke her husband’s rage, which illustrates the grip that this abuse has on her. When Lily anticipates that she’ll leave her father, Jenny explains to her daughter that there are things about marriage that Lily can’t understand. As a teenager, Lily’s understanding of the subject is very black and white, and she can’t comprehend why her mother still loves a man who causes her so much pain. 

However, when Ryle first pushes Lily, she immediately understands that being abused by someone she loves is much more complicated than she ever imagined. She not only does she still love Ryle, but Lily finds herself reaching for the person who caused her pain for comfort, apology, and relief. In that moment, Lily surprises herself by doing the one thing she always promised herself she wouldn’t do: stay with a man who beat her. Throughout the novel, Lily reflects on the ways that she didn’t understand her parents’ marriage. She learns that love doesn’t disappear just because Ryle hurt her, that the impulse to forgive Ryle is often stronger than the impulse to push him away, and that she feels deep compassion for Ryle’s own pain, even in the midst of the abuse. Though Lily never thought she would end up in a relationship like her mother’s, experiencing it firsthand helps her to understand how intractable and tragically alluring an abusive relationship can still be. In the end, though, Lily realizes that her love for Ryle is not enough and that she deserves someone who loves her without causing her constant fear and pain.

The Power of Ambition and Self-Determination

Each of the main characters finds solace and meaning in their drive for success; each character’s career serves as a respite from the often-painful highs and lows of romance. As teenagers, Lily and Atlas both explore the talent that will lead to their future careers. Atlas illustrates his skill in the kitchen when he makes Lily the best chocolate-chip cookies she’s ever had. He later single-mindedly pursues a career as a chef, working his way out of homelessness, through the Marines, through the lower echelons of food service, until he finally owns his own restaurant. Part of Atlas’s drive is to take care of people, as a direct counterpoint to a childhood wherein no one took care of him, which makes feeding others an act of healing for him. In a sense, his ambition to become a successful chef is also tied to his love for Lily; he wants his life to be secure and attractive enough that Lily will see that he’s a stable choice for her. 

As an adult, Lily also develops the talent that brought her solace as a teenager. Growing up, Lily turns to gardening, which provides her with a place to escape, a sense of control, and a means to create something beautiful in the face of so much ugliness. As a gardener uses waste to help plants flourish, Lily composts her pain into a successful career, using her inheritance from her father’s death to start her flower shop. The shop also provides sanctuary from Ryle when he starts to get abusive. Ryle also pursues career advancement with single-mindedness. One of the first things he ever shares with Lily is that he wants to be the best neurosurgeon in the world. As their relationship progresses, Ryle becomes increasingly obsessed with Lily, even saying that he’s addicted to her. Despite his obsession with her, Ryle is protective of his career, emphasizing that throughout their relationship, each of their careers provides a respite from this obsessive, volatile love.

The Grip of Cycles of Violence

Throughout the novel, characters struggle to escape the cycle of violence and to engage in intergenerational healing. As a teenager, Lily, witnessing her mother’s pain and fear, constantly wonders why her mother won’t leave her father. She sees the situation as very clear-cut and thinks the path to happiness is straightforward. She herself struggles to feel love for her father, cutting herself off from any feelings of warmth for him. Experiencing moments of normalcy with her father feels unsafe for her. Because Lily doesn’t feel safe enough to feel love for her father, it’s difficult for her to understand how her mother could still have romantic feelings for the man who causes her so much pain. Lily is so angry with her father that she thinks about killing him, even going so far as to pull a knife on him when he tries to rape her mother. In some ways, it’s less painful for Lily to hate her father than to hold any love in her heart for him.

When Lily falls for Ryle, her perspective on her childhood changes. She is so in love with Ryle that she can’t turn off those feelings once Ryle starts harming her. Each time Ryle hurts Lily, something in her seeks forgiveness, connection, and love. Lily goes through multiple injuries and fights and reconciliations before she can walk away from Ryle, underscoring how difficult it is for her to choose another path. After much pain and soul-searching, Lily realizes that the love itself is part of what’s hurting her. To break the cycle she has to break her own heart to leave him. This is all the more difficult for her because the cycle of abuse has, in some ways, defined her understanding of love since she was very young. Lily makes the difficult decision to do what her mother couldn’t do and walks away from Ryle out of love for herself and her daughter.