I had never even heard of Colleen Hoover; had no clue that TIME named her one of the year’s 100 most influential people in the world. After reading about her phenomenal rise, I quiz a young, single librarian. Yes, she says with a certain diffidence, she reads Hoover. Well, yes, all twenty-four books. When I demand an opinion, she shrugs, just says they are good—but a telltale passion enters her voice when she insists that I must read It Ends With Us before It Starts With Us, because the latter is actually a sequel and. …
Intrigued, I request a passel of Colleen Hoovers. It Starts With Us comes in fast. Weeks pass with no sign of It Ends With Us. Finally I blow off chronology and pick up It Starts With Us. Which is part of a series called Hopeless. Because so many young women are?
Another series is called Maybe Someday.
Hopeless, the series namesake, plus All Your Perfects leads to a sequel, Finding Perfect. All three books rip apart the conventional picture of a perfect life and stomp on it. Then they substitute a more attainable sort of perfection, one that suits their characters. On the back cover, Finding Perfect issues its own spoiler, promising to “give readers the heartwarming conclusion they’ve been hoping for.”
I sigh. Heartwarming conclusions do not always appeal. Still, I blaze through more books. They are easy reads, yet filled with angst. Many of the characters are cheerful, self-acknowledged fuckups. There are no swashbuckling heroes, no sexy vampires, no glamorous international intrigues. The genres swing wild: YA, new adult, very adult, suspense, always romance. Old-fashioned notions of men being scarred and arrogant crop up, as do sweet men who feel helpless but are desperate to help the women they love, which turns them into heroes. Not rugged loners, though; at least these heroes cry, hug, and when pressed, talk. One becomes downright voluble after his sister makes him realize the real problem: “I’m a guy and guys are dumb.”
An irritable pity sets in. Am I bothered by the stereotype or the fact that I know it will resonate? By now, I am even more bemused. I want to hate Colleen Hoover for the weird luck (but is it just luck?) that made her a BookTok sensation and launched a career that could rival J.K. Rowling’s without offering any of Rowling’s imaginative elegance, fey charm, or mythological richness. Clearly, Hoover is onto something. She has sold 24 million books, and posts tagged with her name have been viewed 4.2 billion times. Her books once snagged three of The New York Times top five bestseller slots in one fell swoop.
The novels are straightforward and unpretentious. Character names include Six (who for a while called herself Seven), Sky, Dollar, Merit, Ridge, Chunk, Breckin. None of Hoover’s characters has enough money—and by that I do not mean the insatiability of late-stage capitalism; I mean to pay the rent. In Finding Perfect, the main character is a college kid who has not declared a major, found a job, or filled out a single application. In another novel, a young mother confides, “I’m splotchy. I have carrots smeared across my shirt, my nail polish has been chipped since, like, January.”
Mainly, the books are reassuring. “Not every mistake deserves a consequence,” notes one blurb. “Sometimes the only thing it deserves is forgiveness.” In Hoover’s work, truth and love hold the same redemptive power that they hold in the works of Victor Hugo, Charlotte Brontë, Feodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, and George Eliot—though it is easier won. Families are problematic but redeemable, as are relationships. There are tangles, jealousies, squabbles, misunderstandings, custody tensions with exes—and there is abuse, past and present, parental and spousal. Some have criticized Hoover for “normalizing abuse”; others have taken the opposite tack, calling her books “trauma porn.” Yet what feels exaggerated are only the emotions—in a melodramatic, intense, young way. The amount of trauma in the books meshes with the stats.
Hoover did not need to go to Bread Loaf or the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She needed exactly what she has: a bachelor’s in social work. These books I want to hate? They are honest and real. No literary turns of phrase, no elaborate setting of scene. Just dialogue, sex, breathless suspense, and hope. The banter is fun, quick, sharp, and sometimes silly in the relaxed way of people who trust one another. Granted, “Stop calling my girlfriend Cheese Tits” is not the sort of dialogue I want to scribble down to savor later. I still have not parsed the line “She never tried to get them to persuade her decision.” But there is something real about a nineteen-year-old boy who, at a moment of high emotion, tells an impatient Uber driver, “She’s about to meet her child for the first time, Dick Prick. Give us a minute Also, it smells like tacos in here. Get an air freshener.”
The plot for that particular book hinges on two teenagers having sex in a dark maintenance closet without knowing who their partners are, then falling in love a year later, then somehow realizing, and the guy learning that their quick dark liaison got the young woman pregnant and she gave their baby up in Italy… But how did they get into that closet without seeing one another? Oh, well. What works is the denouement, when they find the couple that adopted their baby and realize, “He is theirs. He’s ours and theirs.” A simple truth many parents never reach.
Mainly, the success of these books reminds me how prissy and bourgeois I am. Hoover’s fans say her work leaves them speechless, in tears, happy wrecks. They connect with these characters, empathize with them, vicariously experience their struggle and elation. These are the readers of a confessional age, and they are interested in, worried about, their own imperfect future. They do not need sexy vampires or glossy models. They need a promise that their lives are not hopeless. And that maybe, someday ….
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.