With its back to front structure, Hazel Hayes’ debut novel Out of Love is unlike anything I have read before. Told in reverse, we watch as two characters break up, develop cracks in their relationship, move in together, have their first kiss, and, eventually, meet for the first time. Not only was the structure really fascinating, the writing itself also sparkled with wit and humour from start to end (or should that be from end to start?). I chose this novel for February’s Book of the Month as it is kind of an anti-love story. Perfect for Valentine’s Day… right?
There are no spoilers in this review as from the very first page, we know how it ends. The story starts with a woman in the apartment she once shared with her boyfriend, Theo. Their relationship has ended, and he is there to pick up his belongings and leave her life for good. The woman narrates the novel and whilst I felt I knew her as well as an old friend by the final pages, she remains unnamed throughout the book. Theo affectionately refers to her as ‘angel’.
As the book progresses, we see our couple facing a whole range of problems, from Angel’s anxiety and depression to Theo’s overbearing mother. In amongst the story of the relationship, Hayes covers a multitude of serious topics with a deft touch. Themes such as trauma, therapy, communication, motherhood, leaving home, and sexuality appear in subtle but complex ways, allowing a reality to the characters beyond their relationship that I found compelling.
Hayes’ skill in creating this reality meant that it was the characters and not the plot which kept me hooked until the very end. Not only Angel and Theo but the side characters too – something I find rare in books where so much of our focus is on the romantic leads. Angel’s best friend Maya was so wonderful, a kind and steady presence in the book, as was her husband Darren. Part of the acknowledgements read, “For my Mayas, without whom I would be very sad and a bit dehydrated. Thank you for the endless emotional support, the advice, the hugs and the tea… For the Darrens who support the Mayas who support me. The world needs more of you”. This felt so sincere that I was welling up by the end. Another brilliant character was Lena; a young woman Angel meets towards the end of her and Theo’s relationship. She only appears in one chapter but leaves a noticeable mark. There were also characters who were impossible to like, like the insufferable Jocelyn, Theo’s frankly awful mother. But even unpleasant characters like her added much interest to the novel and felt truly real.
Before Out of Love, I knew of Hayes not as an author but through her YouTube channel, so it was especially interesting to read her writing for the first time. Her wit and sarcasm definitely shone through as well on the page as it does on the screen. It was also clear that many aspects of Angel were based on Hayes’ own experiences, a point of criticism from some reviewers. However, I felt that this only improved the book; it made Angel all the more realistic and relatable as a character. Furthermore, the love Angel had for her home in Dublin (likely based on Hayes’ own childhood in Ireland) was beautiful to read. The descriptions of her last days at home before moving to London for Theo were artfully done, evoking those feelings of heartbreak and nostalgia, for a place rather than a person.
Hayes also manages to keep her writing engaging until the very end. The last chapter showed Theo and our narrator meeting for the first time. Knowing how their relationship came together and then eventually unravelled made their first meeting so bittersweet. You wanted to root for them, in fact, I was still rooting for them, whilst knowing it was futile. Reading it backwards, you were able to see the origin of their inside jokes, nicknames, and strains on the relationship, making their ending that much more heart-wrenching.
Overall, Out of Love gave much to think about. The ending left me with many questions – primarily, if Angel knew how things ended with Theo, would the relationship even have started at all? I think the answer should be yes – that the way we view romantic relationships is perhaps faulty. A relationship has not ‘failed’ if it does not end when death does them part. It can be successful and beautiful and important regardless of its ending. Ever the wise best friend, Maya tells Angel, “You can’t fail at a relationship. That’s like getting off a roller coaster and saying you failed because the ride is over. Things end. That doesn’t mean the experience wasn’t worth it.”. This, I believe, was the significance in telling Angel and Theo’s story backwards; we get to see that beginnings and middles are just as important as endings, something I’ll try to remember when the next heartbreak comes around.