Out of Love (Book Review)

This reverse love story has some pacing issues, but overall Out of Love by Hazel Hayes is a smart, modern take on romance that proves that the happily ever after isn’t always the point.

What’s it about?

A young woman’s long-term relationship has ended. Her boyfriend has moved out, and she has packed up his things. She knows that the relationship has objectively failed in the end, but as the reader moves backwards chronologically through the relationship they see that the ultimate breakup does not invalidate the joy that came before.

What did I think?

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

When I read the summary of Out of Love, my first thought was “This sounds like The Last Five Years.” Even the timeline is basically the same. While Out of Love does do a few things differently thematically, it never truly breaks from that comparison. That’s not a dealbreaker for me, as I love The Last Five Years, but it does keep me from being totally won over by the novel as it never feels entirely original.

For much of its pagetime, Out of Love doesn’t do anything that The Last Five Years doesn’t (and arguably does less, as the musical provides POV from both its leads, but Out of Love leaves Theo’s perspective out of it). The narrative trick is cool, but it runs the risk of becoming gimmicky. Each chapter moves backwards in time, but they’re not strictly moored to one time, if that makes sense. Our unnamed heroine is very reflective. At any given moment she might reflect back on her past or consider her future, which means that often when we pop backwards in the next chapter it is to an event that she has already thought about in passing. About halfway through, I found my interest lagging; sure, it is fun to see how things shake out, but there aren’t any surprises. For instance, in one chapter our girl remembers her best friend Maya’s miscarriage as well as Maya’s boyfriend’s response to it. Not long later, we experience the moment in real time. It’s still emotionally intense, but it doesn’t feel like it’s providing the overall story with anything new.

Thankfully, once I pushed through that slightly dry middle portion, everything paid off. There’s not an exact place where it happens, but subtly over the course of Out of Love the story transitions from being about a failed romance to being about a woman rebuilding her faith in love after abuse. It’s sad that the relationship with Theo ultimately doesn’t work out, but the breakup doesn’t contradict the fact that falling in love with Theo was a significant part of our protagonist’s healing process. He might not be the one but through loving him she made necessary changes in her life, met her lifelong best friend, and, not least, experienced a healthy romantic relationship in the first time in her life. Significant eras in our lives don’t spoil or become insignificant because they end, Hazel Hayes says in Out of Love. Every relationship has good and bad and, one way or another, every relationship ends. Ultimately, the ending is not as important as the journey.

And that is what makes the storytelling technique feel necessary rather than gimmicky. It would’ve been cool either way, but written as it is the breakup is a foregone conclusion. We go backwards to see the romantic as it builds, which simultaneously shows us that the relationship with Theo wasn’t a waste of time and that our protagonist will be okay even without him. The title is a misnomer because our heroine is never out of love. Even when she doesn’t have Theo she has Maya, who is the best friend anyone could ask for. She has her incredibly supportive mother. She has mentors and coworkers who believe in her. She has her love of writing. Her life is full of love; she just needs to be able to see it.

Surprisingly, there are actually quite a few surprises towards the end of the book. As we move towards the beginning, we see how steep the challenges our protagonist has overcome. It’s impressive that there’s actually a climactic chapter of sorts that actually shocked me. I didn’t think a novel built this way could surprise me quite like that, and I was very impressed. I also liked how, despite ostensibly moving towards a happier time, the story actually gets much darker. When we find out what our heroine was dealing with when she first met Theo, we realize just how far she has come and that, as sad and angry as she might be in the immediate aftermath of the breakup, she’s actually in a far better place than she was right at the start.

There are a few aspects of Out of Love that aren’t done quite as well. While her anxiety and depression are depicted well throughout, the narrator abruptly drops the fact that—at some point after the breakup—she is diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. This is literally the only time we hear about this, and it just feels odd. Like, either go deeper into this or edit out the single line that mentions it. Her bisexuality also feels a little bit like window dressing. Props to Hayes for having a bisexual heroine who actually uses the word “bisexual,” I guess, but it feels underdeveloped. She alludes to biphobia and implied that it contributes to her anxiety and depression. At another point she has a (ambiguously nonconsensual) sexual encounter—her first with a woman—and regrets the circumstances of that first. These feel like they should be significant, but they’re not elaborated on at all, which is particularly disappointing considering that other story beats are overemphasized just a bit too much.

Still, overall I enjoyed Out of Love. It was fun to move back in time through the relationship and discover the origins of the little inside jokes we see playing out (the Margaret Thatcher one is hilarious). A few minor missteps aside, Out of Love is a solid book. It reads like a literary romance. It’s a love story, but the farther you read the more you realize that the main point isn’t necessarily the romance but rather the love the heroine has for herself. Before I started, I thought it would be like a book version of The Last Five Years, and while I still think that after finishing, I think it feels creative and original enough to be worth reading.  

What’s Next?

Obviously if you liked anything about Out of Love, you should see The Next Five Years immediately. There’s a movie with Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick. It’s a really good musical.

If you liked the backwards construction, you should read Genuine Fraud, which does the same thing. It’s a mystery/thriller, not a romance, so the content is very different, but if you like Out of Love it’s almost definitely because of the format.

Speaking of cool formats, try The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Sure, it’s a drastically different book, but it also plays with storytelling and like Out of Love it feeds you information in chunks because it has a narrator who can look up and down the timeline and spoil what’s coming in a deft way that makes you more eager to read it rather than less.

If you like the more mature approach to adult love, you should try Liane Moriarty. There’s not a specific book that I’d compare to Out of Love, but I’ve loved almost everything she’s written. She’s a great writer for stories about older women whose lives aren’t perfect. Rainbow Rowell’s Landline is also a good comp title because it also juxtaposes the idyllic beginning of a romance with a time when it is falling apart. It’s a bit more hopeful, though.

I haven’t read either, so I can’t totally vouch for these recommendations, but I have seen both All Your Perfects by Colleen Hoover and Normal People by Sally Rooney suggested for Out of Love fans.

If you like creative playing with form and enjoyed having a bisexual lead, you might like Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore. It’s an insane book, but in the best way.

It’s a TV show, but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is also interested in subverting the usual ideas about romantic love. Like Out of Love, it focuses ostensibly on the heroine’s love life while actually diving deeply into her mental health and relationship with herself. Like in Out of Love, therapy plays a big part in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and CEG’s protagonist Rebecca is also eventually diagnosed with BPD.

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