Out of Love comes blaring its author Hazel Hayes's social media stats: at the time of writing, she has 250,000 subscribers on YouTube, 230,000 followers on Twitter and 180,000 on Instagram.
The Dublin-born, London-based vlogger is best known for her popular YouTube channel ChewingSand, where she shares videos including her celebrity chat series Tipsy Talk, featuring the likes of Margot Robbie, Jessica Chastain and Saoirse Ronan. Hayes has also been posting regular updates chronicling the process of writing and releasing her first book, which is published by the crowdfunding platform Unbound.
Out of Love is the story of a break-up, told in reverse. It begins with the unnamed narrator, a young Irish woman in London, handing over her ex-boyfriend Theo's belongings as they bid one another adieu after four years. From there, it jumps back days, weeks and months, ending with their first meeting at the office Christmas party in Dublin.
Along the way, we see how their relationship breaks down, each instalment taking away a piece of the scaffolding until the point where loving each other became simply "muscle memory". We also learn how the narrator becomes a full-time writer, considers her sexuality, and works on her mental health.
The aftermath of the split is well rendered, where the narrator astutely charts the fallout: "Phone calls were made. Family members were notified. Condolences were offered. A break-up is like a death without a funeral." She surreptitiously reads through her ex's Facebook messages on an old phone he left behind, and as she sees his nasty comments about her, she thinks back on how they would laugh at stories about his "crazy" ex-girlfriends, realising she has just been added to their number. We'll later hear a more starry-eyed narrator think to herself at the start of the relationship: "I was nothing like those crazy bitches he'd dated in college. What we had was different. What we had was lasting."
As the novel stretches further back in time, it's unclear what, other than the naiveté of youth, indicated to the narrator that the relationship would be different or lasting. The two share an interest in Star Wars and whimsical indie-folk music, but little in the way of a spark or meaningful connection. It doesn't help that their sex scenes are loaded with lazy clichés ("I feel like my body is an undiscovered land being explored for the first time").
The pain of a relationship breakdown is sadly universal, which should give Out of Love broad appeal, but Hayes unfortunately finds her characters far more interesting than they really are. The narrator is particularly taxing - she doesn't need to be likeable, but she should be compelling. Hayes' characterisation of her, however, is chaotic and largely incoherent, leading to a late-stage reveal of a history of trauma that feels tacked-on, a hollow attempt to add depth. (On a superficial note, it's also unexplained how she can afford a flat in affluent Marylebone and a publicist on the income from a monthly magazine column and a handful of blog posts.)
The reverse structure sounds clever in theory, but in execution it has the effect of hindering any narrative flow and offering little to propel the reader forward. The few recurring motifs that tie the story together, such as the narrator's decision to stop taking sugar with her tea, are maddeningly heavy-handed, there are no indicators marking how much time has passed, and the tense can be oddly inconsistent, such as when, towards the end, her future self steps in to explain how she will be diagnosed with a mental disorder long after the break-up.
We're all familiar with stories of love fading, and Theo's crimes (losing interest in their sex life, choosing his mother's side over her own, getting a supermarket cake for her birthday instead of a special dinner) are cutting but not especially novel. The pedestrian quality of the break-up may prove relatable for readers, but it doesn't deliver much to hold our attention, and at times is akin to hearing a friend complain about a boyfriend you don't particularly like very much over and over.
It is the relationship between the narrator and her mother, not Theo, that really stings. Hayes is at her most effective when describing the narrator's last days in her family home before emigrating: the final tour around Howth, the list of things she'll miss most about Ireland, the moving farewell at Dublin Airport.
Hayes also captures the limitations of language used to discuss mental health, and the challenges of talking about it with loved ones. "I thought you were better now," the narrator's mother says after a year of therapy. "For a time, I was better, but I wasn't 'better'," the narrator notes. "We really need a better word for better."
Readers may be left wishing the book itself were better. In the narrator's writing class, her instructor tells her: "Everything you write begins with such promise, but the endings…" The same could be said of Out of Love, which starts out brightly enough, before taking us on a very long, very frustrating slog all the way back to the beginning.
Style Talk Premium
In an alternate universe, we would be spending this week gushing over the gowns at the Cannes Film Festival, following Gal Gadot's press tour wardrobe for the new Wonder Woman film and still coming down from the high of the Met Gala. Yet with red-carpet events cancelled and everyone shut inside, the fantasy worlds of haute couture and celebrity style have gone very quiet.