If I Can’t Have You by Charlotte Levin: A fascinating, psychologically astute story - book review -

A disturbing, gripping and yet intensely heartbreaking novel starring a troubled young woman whose infatuation for a doctor at the practice where she works starts to tip into dangerous territory.

If I Can't Have You
If I Can't Have You

How does human desire turn into a perilous obsession?

Manchester debut author Charlotte Levin explores the dark side of love in a disturbing, gripping and yet intensely heartbreaking novel starring a troubled young woman whose infatuation for a doctor at the practice where she works starts to tip into dangerous territory.

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And what a terrific and frighteningly plausible tale it is… a slow-simmering and horribly compulsive, car-crash journey into a mind that has been warped and damaged by childhood events, and which one senses from the outset can only end in disaster.

A pervasive sense of abandonment and bewilderment leaches from every page of this unsettling and deeply emotional story as Levin, with her unflinching eye, explores what it is like to feel totally alone in the world, and to be ensnared by a need to be loved which is so powerful that it overrides all logical thought.

Thus when lonely, vulnerable 26-year-old Constance Little falls head over heels for the handsome, shallow and louche new doctor at the surgery – a man only too willing to indulge in a brief sexual affair – what lies ahead can only end in tragedy.

When Constance fled the long shadows of her past life in Manchester to find a new one in London, she felt that she had dropped lucky when she was offered a job as a receptionist at a private medical practice.

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She likes to keep herself to herself even at work, hides her low self-esteem under a veneer of cold cynicism, and her home is a shabby bedsit where her only friend is her creepy, geeky neighbour Dale, who sweats too much and veers between sullen and over-friendly.

But then Dr Samuel Stevens walks into her life… the good-looking new doctor fresh from the practice’s Harley Street branch who is ‘the epitome of posh’ and all she despises, but who she immediately finds powerfully attractive.

When Constance trips and badly sprains her ankle outside the surgery one evening, it’s Samuel who volunteers to drive her to the hospital and it’s there that she is certain they have made a mutual ‘connection.’

For Samuel, that connection is a few brief and demeaning sexual encounters but for Constance, they are her first experiences of what she believe is love, even if she suspects deep down that the egotistical Samuel has no intention of forming a meaningful relationship with her.

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And when he finally unceremoniously and ignominiously dumps her, Constance’s damaged life comes back to haunt her and she knows that making do with merely glimpsing Samuel at work will not be enough for her.

‘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.’

If I Can’t Have You unfolds in the form of letters written by Constance under the eye of her therapist, and is perhaps one of the smartest, most addictive and complex psychological thrillers you will read this year.

Constance’s revealing outpourings hold readers like a vice from the unsettling opener through her fateful emotional awakening and the excruciating embarrassments of the fling with the unsavoury Dr Stevens, and all the while we witness her increasingly irrational fluctuations from love to obsession and downright hatred.

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But against the odds, we cannot help but fall for the enigma that is Constance Little because this lost soul is more victim than femme fatale, a woman more sinned against than sinning. Starved of affection throughout her life, Constance’s defence mechanisms are cynicism and withholding her emotions… a risky ploy in a cruel world.

Lingering doubts over where Constance’s obsession will lead lie at the heart of a fascinating, psychologically astute story which excels in nuance and characterisation, and marks out Levin as an exciting new author to watch.

(Mantle, hardback, £14.99)