53 pages 1 hour read

Colleen Hoover

Without Merit

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide


Without Merit (2017) is a contemporary romance novel by best-selling American author Colleen Hoover. The story follows Merit Voss as she struggles to cope with family secrets and to maintain a relationship with the emotionally unavailable Sagan Kattan. Hoover has written over 20 novels in the genres of young adult (YA) and adult romance, 11 of which were New York Times bestsellers. Without Merit won the Goodreads Reader’s Choice Award in the romance category in 2017. Hoover is one of the most widely read contemporary writers, and in 2023, Time magazine named Hoover one of the world’s 100 most influential people.

This guide refers to the 2017 eBook version published by Atria Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

Content Warning: This guide contains discussions of sexual molestation, depression, and suicide.

Plot Summary

Protagonist and first-person narrator Merit Voss, 18, navigates complicated family relationships and symptoms of depression while falling in love with Sagan Kattan. Merit lives with her father (Barnaby Voss), stepmother (Victoria Finney-Voss), mother (Vicky Voss), and her three siblings in a renovated church the family calls Dollar Voss. The family fails to communicate honestly with each other about the secrets and lies they maintain.

The novel is set in the small town of Sulphur Springs, Texas, sometime in the 2010s. Six years prior to the story’s opening, Barnaby and Victoria’s relationship began as an affair while Vicky’s mental health symptoms worsened. When Victoria became pregnant with their son, Moby Voss, Barnaby chose to divorce Vicky, marry Victoria, and move the entire family (ex-wife included) into Dollar Voss. Barnaby lies to his children about Vicky’s health by telling them she has cancer. In reality, Vicky faces challenges with her mental health that began after a traumatic car accident. Barnaby lies to his children to preserve their opinions of Vicky; he believes they will struggle to understand Vicky’s mental health challenges fully. Vicky has agoraphobia and other mental health diagnoses that are not clearly defined, and Vicky cannot leave the basement of Dollar Voss. Her symptoms prevent her from being physically and emotionally present for her kids. Vicky hides her condition from the outside world as best she can.

Barnaby feels as though Vicky turned into a completely different person after the car accident, leading him to build a relationship with Victoria. Victoria is aware that Barnaby occasionally has sex with Vicky, and he is still in love with her; however, they try to hide this complicated relationship dynamic from their children as it is unconventional. The secretiveness causes the older children to blame Victoria for their parents’ divorce, and the uncommunicative environment weighs heavily and builds resentment among the family members. Avoidance is the family’s preferred way of handling uncomfortable conversations and situations.

Merit shares a distant relationship with her older siblings. Her brother Utah sexually molested Merit when she was 12 years old. Utah is gay. He forced Merit to kiss him, attempting to change his sexuality after being bullied at school. Merit has felt uncomfortable around Utah for years, though she never tells other family members about Utah’s actions and she and Utah never discuss the incident. Merit feels especially slighted by her sister, Honor, for maintaining a close relationship with Utah. Merit believes Honor’s romantic interests are unhealthy because she only dates young men experiencing critical illness. At times, Honor asks Merit to lie about Honor’s whereabouts, knowing her father and friends also disapprove of her romantic interests. Merit feels inadequate when she compares herself to Honor, whom Merit believes is more popular and sexier even though the girls are identical twins.

Merit feels a building pressure in keeping the various secrets of her family members. She experiences multiple symptoms of depression and attempts suicide by overdosing on Vicky’s pain medication. She writes a confrontational letter to her family members exposing everyone’s lies and secrets, and this letter becomes her suicide note she signs, “Without Merit.” Utah and Sagan discover Merit and call for emergency services while alerting the rest of the family. Merit’s letter and suicide attempt ultimately force the rest of the family to confront the hidden parts of their lives.

Luck Finney, Victoria’s estranged brother, seeks shelter at Dollar Voss while Merit experiences more mental health challenges. His mother died five years before the novel’s opening, and Luck has been on his own ever since. He is pansexual, and after nearly having sex with Merit, he develops a relationship with Utah. Merit and Luck share conversations that challenge Merit’s views on sex and sexuality. Luck empathizes with Merit after her attempt to die by suicide, as he also attempted to die by suicide a few years prior.

Although they build a passionate attraction for each other, Sagan and Merit move slowly in their relationship, as Merit confronts her family and challenges with her mental health. He pushes Merit on several occasions to build empathy for her family members and see things from their point of view. At the same time, he explains to Merit that one person’s hardships in life don’t disappear simply by comparing themselves to someone who is worse off. Sagan’s family is Syrian, and Sagan has been separated from his parents and younger sister for seven years due to the political crisis in Syria. His family background causes Merit to feel guilty about her reaction to her own family’s issues, but Sagan validates her emotional response to her complicated family relationships.

Through healthy communication, the family comes to understand and empathize with each other. Merit considers Dollar Voss a home for the first time at the novel’s close.

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