Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Healing Power of True Love 

Throughout the novel, characters find healing through the power of true love. At the beginning of the novel, Atlas and Lily have both created successful lives, despite their past struggles with violence and abuse. Though Atlas escaped his abusive mother as a teen and Lily divorced the violent Ryle, these hurtful people from their respective pasts return to impact their present day lives. The return of Atlas’ mother and Ryle’s sustained influence on Lily’s life suggests that both Lily and Atlas have more healing to do before they can be free from the pain of their pasts. For example, Lily has made great strides in differentiating herself from Ryle and building a life that isn’t dominated by his temper. However, from the novel’s onset, whenever Lily sees Atlas as a potential romantic partner, she realizes that she is still somewhat dominated by Ryle’s volatile emotions. Similarly, though Atlas has been free from his mother’s abuse since he was 17, when she gets back in touch with him and as he cares for his half-brother Josh, Atlas realizes that he’s grappling with many of the same issues that he did as a child: Sutton’s selfishness, her violence, and her inability to care for her son. 

Each of these three characters finds a new, positive journey by turning toward love and away from violence. Through her relationship with Atlas, Lily finds the love she’s wanted her entire life, which is protective, generous, compassionate, and supportive. Lily is also impacted through the power of true love in her friendship with Allysa, her best friend and Ryle’s sister. Allysa supports Lily’s healing and encourages her to bravely take steps toward a life of love with Atlas, despite Ryle’s menace. With the loving support of Atlas and Allysa, Lily continues healing herself and escaping Ryle’s grasp. Braced by love, Lily sets stricter and more defined boundaries with Ryle, pursuing the life she wants despite his rage and protecting Emerson from Ryle’s attempts at control and dominion.  

Similarly, out of love for Josh, Atlas sets boundaries with his mother in a way he wasn’t able to as a teen. Atlas doesn’t allow Sutton to manipulate him, to abuse Josh, or to damage Josh’s life the way she damaged his, knowing that it was only through the intervention of Lily’s pure and healing love that he escaped Sutton’s abuse in the first place. In the present, Atlas wrests control of the situation from Sutton by securing full custody of Josh. As a result, Josh is given the possibility of a good, loving life with Atlas and Lily, who marry at the end of the novel. By acting out of love and moving away from toxicity, each of these characters finds a path towards healing, wholeness, and freedom. They also create a family of love and compassion together, a safe haven in which to raise their children and to break previous cycles of abuse and neglect. 

The Power of Compassion to Disrupt Violence 

Throughout the novel, Atlas uses his talents for compassion and empathy to disrupt the violence of other characters and to move his life toward peace and fulfillment. For example, when Ryle attacks him, Atlas literally turns the other cheek, refusing to engage in a physical battle, sitting down, and forcing Ryle to calm down. Throughout the conversation, Atlas acknowledges Ryle as a whole person. He speaks to Ryle’s talents as a neurosurgeon and expresses empathy, putting himself in Ryle’s shoes and imagining how difficult it must be for him to see Lily happy with someone else and to not understand Lily at all. Though reactive violence might have been the easier and even more natural choice, Atlas’s compassion allows him to put all of his patience, calmness, and self-control to work. In not giving Ryle the fight that Ryle wants, Atlas shows him a calmer, no-nonsense approach that disarms him and leaves him without a way to control the situation. In so doing, Atlas also creates a nonviolent framework for how interactions will go in the future, illustrating that, whether Ryle likes it or not, they have to work as a team.  

This compassionate response not only diffuses Ryle, but, when Lily hears of it, she’s grateful and relieved to be with a man who responds with reason instead of violence. Similarly, Atlas shows his mother compassion when he demands custody of Josh. By cooking her favorite dish, coconut shrimp, Atlas illustrates that he sees her for all of her complexity and that he still loves her. Once again, rather than getting angry when Sutton attempts to defend her defenseless neglect as a mother, Atlas empathizes, telling Sutton he cannot imagine how difficult it was for her to be a single mother. By avoiding blaming Sutton too forcefully for her past actions, Atlas not only rescues and protects Josh, but he also creates space for Sutton to still exist in Josh’s life. Thus, with a combination of compassion and fortitude, Atlas disrupts the violent patterns in both his and Lily’s lives and commits to a more peaceful and loving future. 

The Importance of Community in Ending Abuse Cycles 

It Starts with Us illustrates how crucial community is in disrupting stubborn patterns of violence and cycles of abuse. Though Lily is determined to escape from Ryle’s rage and violence, she struggles to extricate herself on her own. Early in the novel, Lily is often uncertain about whether she made the right decision in leaving Ryle, swayed by his gaslighting and persistent advances. It is through support from Atlas, her mother Jenny, and her best friend Allysa that Lily is able to finally leave Ryle in the past. Atlas is a safe space for Lily to bask in love and to hear what she truly needs for her life, outside of Ryle’s attempts to control her. Lily’s mom, a former abuse victim, also bolsters Lily’s fortitude by telling her she wishes she had been as strong as Lily and left her abusive husband to protect her daughter. Finally, Allysa’s support is paramount. It is only through both Allysa’s and Marshall’s full, unequivocal support of Lily that she is finally able to set unwavering boundaries with Ryle, demanding that he seek treatment for his rage issues. With her family and her partner’s help, Lily is finally able to free herself from Ryle’s physical, psychological, and emotional abuse and live her life on her own terms. 

Similarly, Atlas seeks to free his brother Josh from the same abuse that he suffered as a boy. Though Atlas leads the charge to save Josh and to set clear boundaries with Sutton, he relies on community members along the way to help him. His team at the restaurant supports him before he even knows that the vandal is his brother, allowing him to avoid calling the police on the boy. Once Atlas learns that the vandal is his half-brother Josh, he seeks counsel from friends with legal expertise who help him determine how to get custody. Theo not only serves as Atlas’s confidante but also becomes Josh’s friend, creating crucial space for Atlas to figure out how to get custody, and to build his relationship with Lily. What’s more, Lily supports Atlas throughout, talking to him often about his commitment to Josh and helping him decide the best course of action for getting custody. She also connects with Josh, too, helping him to see how, as a teen, Atlas suffered at the hands of Josh’s father Tim. This support helps Josh choose Atlas and indicates that she will be a supportive figure in Atlas and Josh’s life down the road.