Chapter Twelve: Lily 

To assuage her mortification, Atlas tells Lily to go into the Notes app on his phone and read the first one. It’s a Dear Lily letter about his experience when they were teens. Lily is moved and reads the entry. 

Atlas describes what happened to him right before he met Lily. He shares the one positive memory he has of his mother, recounting a time they went to Cape Cod and ate coconut shrimp. His mother and stepfather were abusive to him and kicked him out. Atlas stayed with a friend for three months until the friend moved to Colorado. Finding himself on the streets, Atlas goes to visit his mother to see if he can live at home again. When he arrives at his house, it is falling apart. Atlas’s mother answers the door. Atlas sees that the house is in shambles and hopes that his mother and Tim might see what an asset he is. While his mother is in the other room, he replaces the doorknob with a kit that he finds. His mother insults him and throws a screwdriver at him, making him bleed. He realizes that his mother is the problem and doesn’t care about him. He feels unloved and unwanted. When he met Lily, he says, she made him feel worthwhile, seen, and interesting. He says no matter what happens he will always be grateful to Lily for that. 

Lily has tears in her eyes when she finishes reading the entry. She wants Atlas to hold her, but he’s driving. Instead, he takes her hand. As they say goodbye, Atlas refuses to kiss her because she said she wanted to take it slow. 

When she gets into Allysa’s apartment, Finding Nemo is on the TV. Lily hears the familiar refrain “Just keeps swimming”, which carried her through her adolescence. Emerson is asleep in Ryle’s arms. Ryle is visibly upset, and Lily is worried he found out about her date. He asks to speak to her privately, and they go up on the roof. Ryle confronts Lily because, after watching Finding Nemo, he realizes that Emerson’s middle name, Dory, is connected to the film, and he thinks, to Atlas. Lily thinks about how she named Emerson that for herself, because of her own love of the character’s strength. Ryle gets angry and demands they change Emerson’s middle name. Lily is frightened. Ryle changes his tact and asks Lily what they are doing. He tries to get Lily to get back together with him. Lily wishes she had her list of reasons why she left him and is frustrated he often asks her what they are doing when she’s made it clear. She rejects him and he storms off. 

Marshall finds Lily crying in the stairwell. She is filled with doubt about leaving Ryle. He tells Lily that Allysa cheated on him when they were younger, and though he was incredibly angry at her, he never could’ve physically harmed her. Marshall, though he loves Ryle like a brother, says that he’s furious at him for hurting her. He tells Lily she did the right thing, and she feels like a weight has been lifted off of her. 


This section explores the theme of the healing power of true love through Atlas’s heartbreaking experience with his mother and the redemptive power of his relationship with Lily. When Atlas describes his last meeting with his mother in his letter to Lily, he articulates his realization that he’s been giving his mother too much credit because she never showed much interest in him. In essence, Atlas realizes, as blood drips down his face, that his mother never loved him. It’s in this state of worthlessness that he finds the abandoned house behind Lily’s house—where he plans to kill himself —but he instead he meets Lily. It’s through their relationship, her care, and their love, that Atlas understands himself as someone worthwhile, someone who belongs in the world. It is through his relationship with Lily, then, that he can see that his mother’s perspective on him isn’t the truth. He builds a solid, caring, compassionate life out of the love he experiences with Lily, ending the cycle of sadness and rejection in his branch of the family.   

This section explores the motif of Finding Nemo, which represents Lily’s and Atlas’s fight to free themselves from violence and to provide safety for the children they’re raising. “Just keep swimming,” a quote from Dory, the fish who is voiced by Ellen DeGeneres in the film, is part of the intimate language of Atlas and Lily’s relationship. It signifies their commitment to continue to move forward and to fight, even in the face of adversity, such as intimate partner rage and abuse. It is ironic, then, that, when Ryle first views the film, he responds to it with rage and petty threats, furious that his daughter is named after something that is significant for both Lily and Atlas. While he attempts to erase Atlas from Lily and Emerson’s lives, his selfish, out-of-proportion, and manipulative behavior only makes it necessary for Lily to “just keep swimming,” to fight him and to find solace in her love with Atlas. 

Hoover explores the mental and emotional ramifications of abusive relationships by illustrating how difficult it is for Lily to hold on to the truth of her experience. Because Ryle has systematically manipulated her and gaslit her, it is difficult for Lily to know what is real and what she truly wants. For example, when Ryle abruptly stops being angry with Lily and instead tries to hit on her and ask her what they are doing, he is engaging in gaslighting behavior that seeks to make her feel as though her commitment to their divorce is silly and baseless. His question implies that her reasons for leaving him are minor or fixable and ignores the grim realities that his temper and physical abuse terrorized her. The impact of his technique is clear, as Lily immediately starts to doubt herself and she longs for her list, which reminds her of the very concrete, serious reasons she left Ryle. In exploring this dynamic, Hoover illustrates that the impact of abuse is deeper than just physical wounds and that Lily is working to trust herself and her perceptions in the aftermath of her marriage to Ryle.