Hanna Halperin’s second novel, “I Could Live Here Forever,” fearlessly delves into powerlessness in the face of addiction. Ostensibly it is about the main character Leah’s intense relationship with the questionably recovering heroin addict Charlie. But Leah grapples with her own addiction — her irresistible, possibly destructive, love for Charlie, despite warning signs from virtually the start that all is not necessarily well.
The story begins with how the two met — in the checkout line at the grocery store, where the attraction was electric. The powerful connection is immediate on both sides. “He was tall and boyish-looking. He had the most beautiful face I’d ever seen,” Leah tells us in the very first paragraph.
But it’s disconcerting how intensely fixated Charlie becomes on Leah from the very start. Right away he texts and calls incessantly. He already tells her, “I could live here forever,” after waking up together on their second date, “as he nestles his head against her breasts, tightening his arms around her.” But their feelings are mutual. Leah says, “We showered each other with compliments — your face is perfect, you smell so good, I feel like I’ve fantasized about you before I even met you — and all of it was so much, so all at once, I could barely catch my breath.”
But there are hints right away that make us uneasy about Charlie. Although 31 years old, Charlie lives with his parents; supposedly has a job in construction; frequently and mysteriously goes off at night to meet his colleague only to return high on marijuana, which he says helps keep him off heroin; and he constantly falls into a dead sleep during the day. Neither Leah’s intellectually rigorous colleagues in her prestigious MFA program nor her family approves of Charlie, but that doesn’t deter Leah in the slightest.
Halperin keenly captures the obsessive nature of their relationship. Leah tells us, “What I had with Charlie wasn’t normal … Nobody had ever made me feel as good or as loved as Charlie made me feel. The truth was, there were times I felt so happy with Charlie I thought I might break down sobbing. Being with Charlie was the closest I’d ever come to that feeling of all-consuming love I’d craved for so long.”
The wound from her mother’s abandonment at a young age contributes to this desperation, which Halperin tangibly conveys in Leah’s continual return to Charlie despite their breakups and his irresponsible and sometimes dangerous behaviors that even if she excuses, make us squirm. Leah admits about herself, “I didn’t need to be the prettiest or the most successful or even the most talented. But desperately wanted — needed — to be loved.”
Although pretty hopeless in her addiction to him, Leah does have moments of self-clarity, telling us: “Often, when I spoke about Charlie, I felt like I was trying to paint him in just the right way. I knew that certain details would make people dislike him — or, worse, dislike me. Think that I was weak. I was pathetic. Desperate. So I left out parts of the story — things he said and did, things I said and did.”
Halperin writes in an email interview about her protagonists, “The way I saw Leah and Charlie was constantly changing and surprising me as I was working on the novel. I saw them as in love, but also codependent, manipulative, and sometimes dangerous. Could they be all these things? This grayness was disturbing to me, but that is also what compelled me to keep writing. Ultimately, I was writing about their relationship to inhabit it and attempt to portray their specific intimacy, not to diagnose it or to make an argument about it being a certain type of relationship.”
Halperin skillfully builds a story that carries us along on the couple’s journey, creating very human characters that we come to care about either despite or because of their flaws, and she keeps us turning pages to see how the story will unfold. You will find yourself wondering, will love win out, or the unnerving sense of foreboding prove true?
“I Could Live Here Forever: A Novel,” by Hanna Halperin. $28. Available at Bunch of Grapes and Edgartown Books. Hanna Halperin will appear at Islanders Write this summer on August 21.