The good: Some very surprising twists!
The not-so-good: Samuel is plain awful sometimes.
Why I chose it: Thrillers are good for winter. Thanks to Pan Macmillan for the copy.
Publisher: Mantle (Pan Macmillan)
Rating: 7.5 out of 10
If I Can’t Have You is a book that’s hard to define. Is it a thriller? Yes, sometimes. Other times it’s more of a dark drama or a character-driven story. However you categorise it, it’s a very polished debut novel.
The story is told by Constance, a young woman who has moved to London after the death of her mother. Written in the retrospective first person, the novel is a letter to a person who meant a lot to Constance. Samuel is a new doctor at the surgery where Constance works as a secretary. Handsome and engaging, it’s not long before the two of them have a fling. But Samuel doesn’t want anything serious and ends it. The problem is that Constance is certain Samuel is the love of her life. Much of the story is devoted to the time after the end of their relationship from the hook-ups to the parts when Constance is in her house. As it gets creepier, Constance starts revealing more about herself in the letter.
It’s at this part when we learn more about Constance’s life before London that my perspective of her began to change. She is definitely breaking boundaries with her fixation with Samuel but her life has been one of loss and in her eyes, desertion. Add to this the weird relationship she has with her flatmate and Constance’s circumstances begin to play a bigger role in why she’s acting so possessively. She’s not a truly likeable character – it’s hard to like someone when they’ve broken in to someone else’s flat and tried on their mother’s wedding dress – but she is fascinating. It’s relatively rare to read a first-person perspective of a stalker and Constance also attracts a lot of bad luck. As for Samuel, I really didn’t understand what Constance saw in him. He’s charming and a smooth talker, but it’s clear that he strings women along for a good time when he wants. There were plenty of examples of him leading Constance on, then blanking her later on. His behaviour at times was abominable.
The crescendo of the story is brutal and raw. The appearance of a secondary character, Edward (an elderly man with a penchant for collecting curios and telling stories) helped to soften it somewhat. However, it didn’t fully redeem Constance in my eyes. Yes, she has had a horrible time and needs help but I was surprised that the police weren’t involved more. Perhaps it was Constance’s good luck where Samuel was involved, perhaps it was another plot device to make the reader feel more for Constance. Was she lucky? It’s difficult to say. Would I want her on the streets? Probably not. It’s this ambiguity that kept me reading during some of the flatter parts of the book as Constance and Samuel got together, then he pushed her away. This seemed a little repetitive and served more to emphasise what a tool Samuel was to me more than anything else. But overall, the book was well written and came up with some complex moral issues that I could see a book club debating throughout the night over. If I Can’t Have You is a polished debut.