If I Can’t Have You is a compelling, surprisingly emotional psychological thriller that’s kinda like a gender-flipped version of Caroline Kepnes’ You. However, while Joe in You is downright chilling in how charming he is, even when we see how messed up his actions are, this novel’s heroine, Constance Little, is disquieting in a completely different way.
Our first introduction to her is a dramatically visual callback to Kill Bill, with Charlotte in a wedding dress soaked with blood and vomit, while riding the Tube amidst commuters of all ages. The next chapter introduces us to her obsession / love interest, Samuel, a doctor at the clinic where she works as a receptionist, and from the first few lines of Constance’s letter to him, we realize there’s something off about their relationship:
As much as I’ve been desperate to tell you how much I miss you, think about you until my head spins, my stomach constricts, it was Dr Franco’s suggestion that I write. [p. 4]
The intensity of her language hints less of love than of obsession, and the reference to a doctor immediately raises questions about the status of Constance’s mental health. And when we finally meet Samuel, and we see how he interacts with Constance, contrasted with how Constance seems to view these interactions, it becomes obvious that she’s setting herself up for heartbreak.
Like Joe in You, Constance doesn’t deal with rejection well, and as the story progresses, her interest in Samuel becomes increasingly obsessive. Yet unlike Joe, who becomes ever more creepy the more we get to know him, Constance actually becomes more sympathetic over time. Even when we recognize how messed up her actions are, it’s hard not to feel for her, and possibly even empathize with her a bit.
Part of it is, unlike the arrogant, ultra charismatic Joe, Constance is a really sad, unremarkable person. She has a tragic backstory — she’s lost both her parents, and the extent of tragedy behind their stories is revealed to us very gradually — and as a result, she truly fears that everyone whom she loves will eventually leave her. She’s forced to confront this fear in the present-day story, partly through Samuel, but, more heartbreakingly, with an elderly man whom she befriends, and honestly, there are times when you just want to give her a hug.
There’s a particularly powerful scene early on where Constance writes her father a birthday card, as she does every year, but because she doesn’t know where he is, or if he’s even still alive, she mails it in without an address. And in this scene, the mailman notices she didn’t include an address, and helpfully returns the letter to her. Levin writes this scene with beautiful restraint, tucking such depth of emotion between her lines, and honestly, the image of that envelope, with stamps but no address, and of Constance trying to pretend she just left the address at home, just about broke my heart.
But for me, what really turned Constance into a subject of sympathy more than censure is that karma actually hits her within the story. Just as she stalks, and obsesses over, Samuel, her friend Dale also becomes obsessed with her. Ironically, Constance totally misses the parallels between their situations, but her fear and discomfort in the situation are palpable. Her frantic attempts to manage his emotions and maintain her safety are distressingly relatable, and while it’s super messed up that she thinks her actions towards Samuel are somehow completely different and justified, her experiences with Dale are nerve-wracking.
Samuel is also an interesting character study for me. His careless treatment of women raises quite a few red flags. As a reader, who’s less oblivious than Constance, it’s clear from the start that he’s interested only in sex and not in anything deeper, and it’s kinda shady that he chooses not to address that directly until a few weeks into dating. He also continues to ask Constance for sex, even after he’s learned of her deeper feelings for him, and sometimes, it doesn’t so much seem as if he’s misunderstood Constance’s feelings as that he doesn’t care. But the biggest red flag to me is that he dismissively describes his ex-girlfriends as clingy and unreasonable, which is so often used by men to justify their crappy treatment of said girlfriends. Then again, it wouldn’t be inaccurate for him to describe Constance in that way, so perhaps there’s more truth to his depiction of his ex-girlfriends than I originally thought.
Overall, this is an entertaining story that I devoured in a couple of days and found hard to put down. And Constance is a fascinating anti-heroine, a perhaps softer and more vulnerable alternative to the usual fare of charismatic villains.
Thank you to Publisher’s Group Canada for a copy of this book as part of their holiday giveaway in December 2020.