Wednesday, January 8, 2014

9 Heart Review: What I Had Before I Had You by Sarah Cornwell

What I Had Before I Had You
Sarah Cornwell
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Page Count: 288

Release Date: January 7th 2014
Publisher: Harper (Harper Collins)
Source: Complimentary copy provided by publisher via tour publicist in exchange for an honest and unbiased review (thank you, Harper Collins and TLC!)
Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

Written in radiant prose and with stunning psychological acuity, award-winning author Sarah Cornwell’s What I Had Before I Had You is a deeply poignant story that captures the joys and sorrows of growing up and learning to let go.

Olivia Reed was fifteen when she left her hometown of Ocean Vista on the Jersey Shore. Two decades later, divorced and unstrung, she returns with her teenage daughter, Carrie, and nine-year-old son, Daniel, recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Distracted by thoughts of the past, Olivia fails to notice when Daniel disappears from her side. Her frantic search for him sparks memories of the summer of 1987, when she exploded out of the cocoon of her mother’s fierce, smothering love and into a sudden, full-throttle adolescence, complete with dangerous new friends, first love, and a rebellion so intense that it utterly recharted the course of her life.

Olivia’s mother, Myla, was a practicing psychic whose powers waxed and waned along with her mercurial moods. Myla raised Olivia to be a guarded child, and also to believe in the ever-present infant ghosts of her twin sisters, whom Myla took care of as if they were alive—diapers, baby food, an empty nursery kept like a shrine. At fifteen, Olivia saw her sisters for the first time, not as ghostly infants but as teenagers on the beach. But when Myla denied her vision, Olivia set out to learn the truth—a journey that led to shattering discoveries about herself and her family.

Sarah Cornwell seamlessly weaves together the past and the present in this riveting debut novel, as she examines the relationships between mothers and daughters, and the powerful forces of loss, family history, and magical thinking.
What if all the transcendent moments of your life, the sound-track moments, the radiant detail, the gleaming thing at the center of life that loves you, that loves beauty—God or whatever you call it—what if all this were part of your illness? Would you seek treatment? I have, and sometimes I wonder if the greatest passions are just out of my reach. And sometimes I am so grateful.

As Olivia Reed's family begins to fall helplessly apart in the wake of a dry affair and along with her recently diagnosed son's growing instability, she whisks her children away from their once-comforting ranch in Texas, doing the one thing she does best: run. She knows she's out of her mind going back to the place she left behind long ago, the place where she is certain her ghosts still reside, but in an act of desperation, she has no choice; she's hometown-bound, and the moment she steps onto the long-missed boardwalk and breathes in the salty ocean air, she knows she has made a mistake.

Losing her son, combined with the familiarity of Ocean Vista, conjures various memories—of her first love, of her best friends, and most painfully, of the one person she never fully forgave: her mother. What I Had Before I Had You exposes Olivia's life in its slow, harrowing full, alternating between her unfairly influenced, unsupervised childhood and the unsettling, untold present-day. It sweeps readers through the lonely adolescence, teenage rebellion, and liberal prominence of the 1970's and 80's, all the while describing the frenzied, unnerving search for Daniel in the present, before escalating to the fateful summer when everything changed—when Olivia first indulged in her art of abandonment.

Reading this book was an experience itself. The brief glances into Olivia's shaky childhood—the result of a mentally ill but in-denial mother and the burden of independence that came much too early—as well as the current frustrations over muting her disorder while simultaneously muting herself, are penetrating, completely eye-opening. Cornwell masterfully balances the struggles of hereditary bipolar disorder—not only a diagnosis, in Olivia's bloodline, but also an inheritance—and the struggles of being a mother—of being human—in this glittering narrative.

Olivia's past is told with a vintage filter, a dusky, dreamy undertone; deeply periodic and exquisitely lush, it involves Myla's divine convictions, sleepless nights spent alone, and the unaware suffering she felt as a child—both unmedicated and uninformed. This is the childhood that adult Olivia has tried so hard to forget, the childhood that her family now knows nothing about, and as it unravels with ruthless precision and targeted blows, it culminates into the story of what happened when she was fifteen—the summer of extreme emotions and ultimate betrayal.

I was even further impressed by how complex the storytelling is; it isn't simply a factual retelling, it isn't just a secret revealed. Olivia's past is narrated with the haze of an unreliable brain, a time-worn rememberer; readers are only given the version of events that have become Olivia's own, tempered by her imagination and improved by the million small revisions of memory. We will never know whether the emotions presented, as intense as they are, have been dulled by time, weathered by maturity, and this is the entire essence of the novel—this is Olivia's pain, which, through Cornwell's rare gift for detailing and piercing hearts, readers feel, themselves.


Emotionally searing // Evocative; beachy, warm setting // Nostalgic; memories of childhood revealed with a tragic veil of time // Writing is powerful and poetic // Biting, wounding, affecting // Insightful; psychologically and stunningly precise // Phenomenal incorporation of the past into the present // Historically and culturally rich, vivid


Slow start // Disorienting at times


Pam never came after me. I don't blame her. I didn't look for her, either. I hear that she's a math teacher in West Orange. There are those people in your life who matter instantly, on another plane, and you have to marry them or kill them or run the hell away, you can't do it halfway. I hope her house is full of paintings. I hope somebody loves her.
We walk down the boardwalk, close to the storefronts, scanning the crowds for Daniel, his lime-green swim trunks, his gray T-shirt, his thick brown curls. Of course I would lose him here; this is where I lose people. My past is leaching into my present, and even in the midst of this panic, I feel a sensation of walking a few steps behind myself. 


Heartbreaking, silver-lined, and deeply meaningful, What I Had Before I Had You meditates on one mother's frantic search for her son, as well as on the even more hazardous search for herself. Sarah Cornwell elegantly constructs the thin membrane that separates childhood from parenthood in this luminous debut; as if slipping in and out of consciousness, the storylines alternate—unwinding slowly, lazily at first, and then gaining torque, and consequently, destructive power—a depiction of the debilitating effects of a mental illness such as bipolar disorder. This novel blends together the tenderly told story of a failed first love, the bittersweet flavor of resurrecting family ghosts and family history, and the delicate, learned craft of holding on and letting go—indeed, an intoxicating melange Americanflag

9 hearts: Loved it! This book has a spot on my favorites shelf (x)