Emily Houghton’s Before I Saw You is a tender, emotional debut about pain, recovery and the support people find in unexpected places. This tear-jerking slow-burn romance follows two patients in a long-term care ward as they recover from serious injuries.
Alice and Alfie share a room at St. Francis’ Hospital. Alice is an overworked introvert healing from significant burns after a fire in her building. Alfie is an incurable extrovert who survived a deadly car accident but needed to have his leg amputated. They’re very much opposites. Alfie is quite the chatterbox, determined to bring a smile to everyone’s face, and Alice barely speaks and keeps the curtains closed around her bed. After relying solely on herself from a too early age, the thought of depending on someone else for anything causes Alice to shrink further into herself.
At first, their relationship is built on Alfie talking and Alice just listening. While his incessant chattering annoys Alice at the beginning, she quickly grows accustomed to hearing his voice and eventually finds it a source of comfort. Alfie and Alice both suffered other traumas before their respective injuries, and a long-term hospital stay could be the catalyst for finally addressing those events. After all, there is little else to do when you’re mostly confined to a hospital room.
An action-oriented romance this is not. But it's a perfect read for someone who prefers getting to know the main characters and watching their relationship grow via those tiny, seemingly inconsequential moments. Alice and Alfie’s journey from strangers to friends to more is torturous in the best way possible. Their relationship unfolds slowly, teasingly. The first time they touch hands is momentous and feels incredibly raw because of how much tension and anticipation Houghton has built up to that point.
There are dark moments as Alfie and Alice come to terms with their own baggage, and as the reader discovers more about the circumstances that led them to the hospital. Before I Saw You should come packaged with tissues because crying is inevitable. However, Houghton sneaks in bits of levity from the larger cast of characters, from Alfie’s doting parents to the empathetic staff. It’s a great, balanced approach that also extends to the affable Alfie. Though his kindness and charming personality are genuine, he wields them as a shield to distract himself from thinking too deeply about how his life will change once he leaves St. Francis.
Don't be turned off by the promise of an ugly sob or two. Houghton makes the tough times worth it, such as when Alice speaks her first words to Alfie or when she finally shifts aside her curtain and reaches out her hand. One of the beauties of romance is how it shows the bright spots amid tough times, and Before I Saw You is a testament to why readers find this genre to be hopeful above all else.