Stalkers and unhealthy relationships are definitely part of the zeitgeist at the moment. From Netflix’s adaptation of Caroline Kepnes’ You to the recent debut Seven Lies by Elizabeth Kay, there seems to be a continuing fascination with the psychology of obsessive, one sided relationships. Into this genre comes another debut If I Can’t Have You by Charlotte Levin. This books takes readers deep down the rabbit hole of an obsessive, destructive mind, but one herself the subject of some fairly poor behaviour.
When the book opens, narrator Constance Small is on the Tube, bleeding from her mouth onto what appears to be a wedding dress. Her narration sets a tone as, despite her own appearance and state, she manages to be rude and judgemental about just about everyone else in the carriage. The majority of the remainder of the book is a confession written to “you” (who that “you” is becomes clear very early on) that seeks to explain how she arrived at that point in her life. It is a justification of her actions but also an attempt to self-analyse and understand them.
Constance works as a receptionist in a GP practice. The new doctor, Samuel Stevens, catches Constance’s eye and she is immediately smitten with him. Dr Stevens is rich, handsome and seems to fancy Constance also and it is not long before they are together. But Stevens is not a long term relationship type of guy and before not much longer they are no longer together. This is a state of affairs that Constance cannot abide and she sets about to show him the error of his ways. At the same time she is also fending off the advances of her slightly creepy roommate Dale while also using him for emotional support.
This is tough read if only because all of the main characters are awful, with the possible exception of Edward, an elderly man Constance ends up looking after (initially so she can watch Stevens from across the street). Some of the side characters, such as the psychiatrist who treats Constance for free, may actually be genuine, but it is hard to establish a read of them through Constance’s jaundiced view. I guess there is some fascination in reading about bad people behaving badly but it palls a little after a while.
The narrative itself is one note, reflecting Constance’s monomaniacal world view and it repeatedly falls back on her obsession and self-justifications. And the combination of the cold open and foreshadowing mean that the general outline of the endpoint is never really in doubt. There is some dipping into Constance’s fairly tragic backstory and her abandonment issues but nothing that either explains or justifies her extreme behaviour. And while both Dale and Stevens are both clearly manipulative, self-centred and uncaring (even when filtered through Constance’s point of view), there is still little to found any sympathy for her.
Strangely, the whole enterprise feels a little old fashioned. There is plenty of use of mobile phones, and the ability to easily follow someone wearing headphones is explored. But there is absolutely no mention of social media or any of the more modern ways of cyberstalking someone or finding out about their life and the other people in it. When Constance wants to get a message to Stevens she does it via cut out letters on a card pushed through his letter box. She discovers other details about him through a note with a dinner arrangement on his fridge.
If I Can’t Have You fits neatly into obsession lit. Readers’ tolerance for it will depend on their willingness to immerse themselves in Constance’s world. For readers into this type of thing, this is a chilling exploration of a character with a seriously unhealthy mindset dealing with a couple of other damaged individuals. Other readers may want to find something a little more nuanced.