If I Can't Have You
PublisherPan
Date Published04 February 2021
 
 
ISBN-101529032423
ISBN-13978-1529032420
Formatpaperback
Pages415
Price£ 8.99

If I Can't Have You

by Charlotte Levin

Constance falls for him from the moment she meets Samuel. But she is not falling in love. She is tumbling far from reality.


Review

After an unexpected death at the London surgery where Constance works as a receptionist, Dr Samuel Stevens steps in. Samuel is handsome and educated. He is also narcissistically blind, making false promises, pretending that he wants a relationship with the women in his life, when really, he just wants sex. When those women call him out, he accuses them of being clingy and slightly mad.

Constance is a delicate bird with a broken wing, a victim for Samuel’s manipulation. But his insincerity and lies take Constance’s mind to a dark place where love and obsession are indistinguishable.

Dale is the one friend Constance relies on. But she feels she can’t tell him about Samuel, and as Dale’s own insecurities raise their ugly heads, she sees the reason for her instinctive reticence.

Constance meets Edward when a group of youths intimidate them both. She soon becomes the old man’s darling, helping out in his Aladdin’s cave of a flat. But there is little altruism in her actions; she is drawn to visiting him over and over because Samuel lives directly opposite Edward. From his flat she can Samuel’s every move and drown in the confusion of his advances and his rejections.

There are no happy endings in if I Can’t Have You. Charlotte Levin writes from the heart. Her prose is fierce, with a powerful, unrelenting voice. Constance’s point of view is utterly believable, bristling with anger, ecstasy, and every emotion in between. The people that colour Constance’s life, other than Samuel and perhaps Dale, are subject to her cynical, at times, caustic scrutiny. And this punctuates the darkness with lighthearted, human, and laugh-out-loud one-liners, especially when reading her unapologetic introspections about her colleagues, Linda and Alison.

I had a love-hate relationship with Constance as I am sure most readers will. She engenders sympathy and dislike in equal measures. She is needy, clingy, but as her story unravels, I wobbled between seeing her feral behaviour as excusable and understandable and at times being furious with her for being so blind, so gullible. At other times I rooted for her. She is far from reasonable, but she is utterly human and more three-dimensional than many real-life people.

Samuel and Dale, for different reasons, are twisted, self-obsessed creeps – the people you love to hate. Edward is a gentle, light star in the dark sky.

This character-driven, dark story is told from Constance's viewpoint, addressing her narrative to Samuel. I find the constant “you” reference grating, but as the story progresses, it becomes increasingly clear why it is written in this way.

I am sure there will be many who compare If I Can’t Have You to the likes of Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, et al, but for me, it stands on its own two feet. It is compelling and the quality and rawness of this psychological thriller with its tale of twisted love and fatal obsession needs no comparison.

If I Can’t Have You is sinister, addictive, claustrophobic, bold, and in places, disturbingly intimate. Without giving anything away, it is cleverly written, though it did drag a little in places.

This novel was originally entitled An Explanation of Love. At its heart, that’s just what it is; an in-depth, terrifying portrayal of what love is and isn’t. This is a stunning debut that even has a fascinating (and emotional) acknowledgements page.

Reviewed 24 July 2021 by Kati Barr-Taylor

Kati Barr-Taylor lives in her ‘cosy pigsty’ in the Dordogne. She satisfies her literary cravings by translating, writing, editing and reading.