Blurb from Goodreads:
Samuel, the day we met I knew I’d finally found what I’ve been waiting for.
Happiness, at last.
Then you left me.
And now I am alone.
Everyone I love leaves in the end.
But not this time.
I’m not giving up on us.
I’m not giving up on you.
When you love someone, you never let them go.
That’s why for me, this is just beginning.
Isn’t that blurb just chilling? You know right away that the speaker is unhealthily obsessed and on the verge of making some really bad decisions! This is the type of character who is usually portrayed as the psycho ex-girlfriend or some sort of scorned vengeful rival, someone to be pitied and despised, a villain we root for the hero to overcome. And yet in this book, that character is the protagonist! Told from a first person perspective, the masterful debut novel If I Can’t Have You takes us down the rabbit hole of infatuation, betrayal and revenge…and makes us mostly sympathize with the damaged lead in the process.
Constance has led quite a miserable life with a father who walked out on her as a child and an alcoholic mother who passed away recently. Her only companion is a male friend who wants more from her than she’s willing to give and fits the appalling Nice Guy trope to a tee – the only value their friendship holds to Dale is the promise that eventually he will be able to convert that relationship into an intimate sexual one. In the mean-time, he walks all over Constance, overriding her wishes and demeaning her with frequent jibes that lower her self-confidence. Work at a doctor’s surgery isn’t much of an escape from her hum-drum existence as she suffers through interactions with one snobby dismissive co-worker and another one who is overly chatty and never misses an opportunity to overshare about boring personal details.
But then a new doctor arrives on the scene, a young handsome doctor who catches Constance’s eye and a flirtation develops between them, leaving her giddy and hopeful that her luck may be changing. Unfortunately for the vulnerable, broken Constance, Doctor Samuel Stevens is only out for a good time and despite a pretense at caring for her, he callously breaks her heart in the most cruel, insensitive way. Samuel knows that Constance has feelings for him and is a sure thing when he needs a hook-up, so he keeps her dangling on a string for as long as it suits him til he’s ready to cast her off and move onto the next shiny toy.
This isn’t the story I thought I would be getting – I imagined that perhaps Constance would fall for a genuinely nice man who had no intention of leading her on, but because of her fractured psyche and unreliable view of the world, she would interpret his behavior differently and believe they had a connection that didn’t actually exist. And I think that could’ve been an interesting story where the man didn’t deserve to be the target of her fixation. But while it is a little manipulative to persuade the audience to side with the main character by making Samuel a complete dirtbag and having us root for his downfall, that doesn’t make it any less effective. Sadly this type of man does exist in the real world so Samuel is very believable as the wealthy, privileged white man who feels entitled to have a bit of fun at the expense of the women’s feelings.
The reader can clearly recognize that Constance is breaking all sorts of moral and legal boundaries as the story continues, but it’s easy to empathize with her actions because of how Samuel treated her. We don’t feel bad for Samuel when she invades his privacy and increasingly encroaches into his personal property, instead we fear for Constance’s safety and sanity! I held my breath on more than one occasion as I watched the trainwreck that was Constance’s decision-making process, hoping and praying that she would emerge unscathed. And that’s a testament to the clever, captivating writing which confidently secures our investment in the lead character. Constance is a mess, for sure, and her spiral downward can’t be entirely blamed on other characters, but my god is it impossible not to root for her anyway!
At times the writing is almost too raw for comfort, it can become upsettingly real and grotesque, but as a result it rings true to life and makes Constance feel like she could emerge off the pages, fully formed. She’s not a likable protagonist, but she’s extremely relatable, such as when she makes cynical observations about her coworkers which had me cackling. I think most of us know someone at the office who won’t shut up no matter how desperately we want to escape their orbit!
The story is very effective in the way it engages with the reader by showing us Constance’s actions and refusing to shy away from how unscrupulous she’s being. It would’ve been easy to make Constance an unreliable narrator who justifies everything she’s doing, but instead she’s painfully self-aware, noting exactly how disturbed her actions are and yet unable to keep herself from going through with them anyway. Because she doesn’t indulge in self-pity or excuses, it forces us to judge her actions and try to determine whether or not we can make excuses for her. When she befriends an elderly man, for example, this is an act of charity and she brings him great comfort – but we know that the main reason for her solicitous care of him is because of his close proximity to Samuel and how it enables her to stalk the object of her affection. So is this still an act of compassion because her visits undeniably help Edward or are we to look down on her for taking advantage of a frail old man for her own agenda?
As Constance slowly deteriorates, becoming more desperate and unhinged, the tension increases along with our sense of dread and despair on her behalf. The most impressive thing is the author’s restraint that keeps Constance from going too wildly off the rails to the degree of implausibility, instead her transgressions are just far enough for readers to still be able to put themselves in her shoes and think, who’s to say I wouldn’t do the same?
If I Can’t Have You is a splendidly written story that will keep the reader guessing and squirming uncomfortably at what Constance will do next while posing many moral quandaries that are sure to linger in the mind long after you finish reading. Strong compelling characterization, darkly humorous nuances and unexpected plot twists make for a fantastically rewarding read.
Personal Rating: 4 out of 5 kitties recommend this book.
Disclaimer: Physical copy provided by publisher free for an unbiased review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.