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What I Had Before I Had You: A Novel

What I Had Before I Had You: A Novel

3.7 7
by Sarah Cornwell

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In What I Had Before I Had You by Sarah Cornwell, a woman must face the truth about her past in this luminous, evocative literary novel of parents and children, guilt and forgiveness, memory and magical thinking, set in the faded, gritty world of the New Jersey Shore.

Olivia was only fifteen the summer she left her hometown of Ocean Vista. Two


In What I Had Before I Had You by Sarah Cornwell, a woman must face the truth about her past in this luminous, evocative literary novel of parents and children, guilt and forgiveness, memory and magical thinking, set in the faded, gritty world of the New Jersey Shore.

Olivia was only fifteen the summer she left her hometown of Ocean Vista. Two decades later, on a visit with her children, her nine-year-old son Daniel, recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, disappears. Olivia’s search for him sparks tender and painful memories of her past—of her fiercely loving and secretive mother, Myla, an erratic and beautiful psychic, and the discovery of heartbreaking secrets that shattered her world.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 10/14/2013
The “you” in the title of this psychological mystery debut refers to children, not partners. In Olivia Reed’s case, what her mother Myla had before she had her were stillborn twins, infant ghosts she’s told will follow her through life. But ghosts take different forms as the novel unfolds: are they spirits of dead children, as professional “psychic” Myla insists? Or are they the teenage girls that Olivia begins to “see” when she is 15, believing herself the inheritor of her mother’s gift? Are they dead souls come of age, her living sisters, or mad hallucinations? The answers shift as the narrative switches back and forth between the summer of 1987, when Olivia was an adolescent, and the present, when she’s traveling with her two children, Daniel and Carrie, after her divorce and revisits her hometown of Ocean Vista, N.J. In this haunted place, “the locus of guilt,” she loses nine-year-old Daniel, who is bipolar, on the beach. His disappearance drives the narrative forward, but what’s more captivating is Olivia’s relationship with her beautiful, unbalanced mother and its parallels with her relationship with Carrie, as well as Olivia’s ruminations on the meanings of mental illness. “What I had before I had you” are hidden pasts, leaving indelible traces. Depth of insight, dreamy prose, and an engrossing storyline mark this wonderful debut. (Jan.)
Philipp Meyer
“An incandescent debut by turns thrilling and meditative; part coming of age novel, part exploration of the fragility and complexity of love and family. Sarah Cornwell is a writer to be celebrated and watched.”
Margot Livesey
“Only a few writers can genuinely capture that stormy period between childhood and adulthood and Sarah Cornwell is one of them. . . . The result is an exhilarting, hurtling, unstoppable ride for the reader.”
Antonya Nelson
“Cornwell’s debut novel is equal parts page-turner and dreamy meditation on the nature of mental illness. . . . An important exploration of the deepest philosophical inquiries into the nature of existence, family, and love. I highly recommend.”
Andrea Barrett
“Sarah Cornwell has a brilliant eye for the telling detail, and a wonderfully original way of embodying family history. I was captivated by her memorable characters and the perfectly paced revelations of their surprising relationships.”
James Magnuson
“Sarah Cornwell’s first novel is as unnerving and authoritative as Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black. This is a beautifully written book, bold and wounding. Read it and you will never look at the Jersey Shore in quite the same way again.”
“[A] bewitching first novel. . . . In chapters alternating between the puzzling, pressurized present and eerily predictive past, Cornwell weaves the novel’s double narrative with the deft touch of a magician and the sure hand of a confident writer to watch.”
“[Cornwell] handles the delicate subject of mental illness and the realities of living with a mood disorder with compassion and grace. . . . [A] thoughtful and powerful debut.”
Romantic Times
“Cornwell’s debut is a dreamy trip to the past with one foot planted in the present. . . . This haunting tale of a childhood distorted by trauma, myth and devotion will stay with readers long after they’ve turned the last page.”
New Jersey Monthly
“An engaging debut. . . . Well-paced, with enough tension to be absorbing, What I Had Before I Had You is replete with lyrical turns of phrase and spot-on details.”
Dallas Morning News
“If reading literary fiction truly increases one’s emotional intelligence (as a recent study suggests), this lively debut novel by Sarah Cornwell has much to contribute. . . . The novel involves deft plot twists and last-minute revelations that add to the suspense.”
The Rumpus
“You’re reading, you’re enthralled by the story and the characters and the Jersey Shore in the summer, and sprinkled throughout are these wonderful sentences that make you stop, simple yet resonant like the clear ping of crystal stemware.”
Daily Candy
“Sarah Cornwell’s debut novel meshes past and present, mothers and children, and magic and memory to give readers the kind of book they can be glad exists.”
Boston Globe
“Twining Olivia’s teenage past with her grown-up present, Cornwell tells a sensitive, clear-eyed, and ever so slightly supernatural story of a family shaped by mental illness.”
“The subtler workings of past trauma on present-day lives underscore Sarah Cornwell’s psychological page-turner.”
The Austin Review
“Cornwell skillfully navigates themes of mental illness, memories, and identity with carefully chosen prose. . . . [An] impressive first novel.”
Jodi Picoult Lists Her Favorite Reads of 2014
“This debut novel blew me away with the beauty of its language and the honesty of its narrator. . . . The reality of living with a parent with mental illness, and how it impacts a child, is heartbreakingly beautiful in Cornwell’s capable hands.”
Booklist(starred review)
“Cornwell’s first novel is an authentic and artful coming-of-age story that is uniquely multigenerational. . . . With great attention to detail and a smooth flow between past and present, this emotionally charged narrative is as memorable as it is compelling.”
Booklist (starred review)
“Cornwell’s first novel is an authentic and artful coming-of-age story that is uniquely multigenerational. . . . With great attention to detail and a smooth flow between past and present, this emotionally charged narrative is as memorable as it is compelling.”
Kirkus Reviews
The magic of madness or the sobriety of sanity--if you had to choose, could you? Twenty years ago, Olivia fled Ocean Vista, fled her psychic mother, fled her betrayed friends. Now recently divorced, she has come home with her teenage daughter, Carrie, and her 9-year-old son, Daniel, in tow. Like Olivia, Daniel struggles with bipolar disorder. Her husband could live with Olivia's battle but not Daniel's. But Daniel disappears, and as Olivia searches for him, she must confront the ghosts of her past, which lead her back to the summer when she left her mother. Always a loner, Olivia never fit in. At home, her mother, Myla, charted the ebb and flow of her energies, read fortunes and spun a fantasy world in which her twin daughters--daughters who were stillborn in 1971--lived on, forever babies. Sometimes Myla disappeared for a few days. Yet life with brilliant, adventurous, unpredictable Myla sparkled with excitement. The summer of 1987, however, changed everything. While swimming, Olivia saw her sisters for the first time as teenagers, not babies. Myla ignored the vision, which prompted Olivia to grab her camera in search of photographic evidence. Eventually, she did find her sisters again, only to have them run off. Yet they led Olivia to a new group of friends, including Kandy, the charismatic leader of the Emerald Crowd; Pam, who painted Olivia into the clique's mural; and beautiful Jake. Delighted to finally belong, Olivia was dangerously untutored in the ways of friendship. The quest to find her sisters soon unearthed dark family secrets, which shredded her relationship with Myla. Only the search for Daniel can heal the still-raw wounds. Gorgeously crafted, Cornwell's tale shimmers and shimmies with nimble dialogue and poignantly flawed characters. Grafting magical thinking onto gimlet-eyed acceptance, Cornwell's debut novel enchants.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Meet the Author

Sarah Cornwell grew up in Narberth, Pennsylvania. Her fiction has appeared in the Pushcart Prize Anthology, Missouri Review, Mid-American Review, Gulf Coast, and Hunger Mountain, among others, and her screen- writing has been honored with a Humanitas Prize. A former James Michener Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, Sarah has worked as an investigator of police misconduct, an MCAT tutor, a psychological research interviewer, and a toy seller. She lives in Los Angeles.

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What I Had Before I Had You 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
katwood28 More than 1 year ago
I was really drawn into the story and appreciated the layout of the story.  Cornwell is able to capture the audience from the beginning and never let go.  The structure of the chapters were brilliant - floating us between the past and present so well that I never got bored.  I am pleasantly surprised to know that this is Cornwell's first book - she seems to have a very bright future ahead and I will be in line for her next book.
KrittersRamblings More than 1 year ago
Is bipolar disorder genetic?  Can it be passed down from generation to generation?  This book made me think twice about these questions and even do some research of my own.  With three definite generations battling various levels of the disease and hints at even more family members suffering from the disease in the past, it was very interesting to read about the different ways this disease can manifest and affect people.  The other thing that the author did a fantastic job of was showing how other family members are affected by the attention that those who suffer get due to their disease. By far, this was not an easy read due to subject matter, but it was definitely an intriguing read.
TheStephanieLoves More than 1 year ago
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. Pros: 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 Cons: Slow start // Disorienting at times Verdict: 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. Rating: 9 out of 10 hearts (5 stars): Loved it! This book has a spot on my favorites shelf. Source: Complimentary copy provided by publisher via tour publicist in exchange for an honest and unbiased review (thank you, Harper Collins and TLC!).
bookchickdi More than 1 year ago
What I Had Before I Had You opens with fifteen year-old Olivia seeing her twin sisters for the first swimming in the ocean off her Jersey Shore home in Ocean Vista. As the story unwinds, we discover that Olivia's mother, Myla, miscarried her twin daughters a year before Olivia was born. Myla decorated a nursery in their home, and acts as though the dead girls are ghosts, living with them. Olivia has grown up with this, and her mother claims to be a psychic, so she doesn't know that this is a manifestation of her mother's mental illness. Sometimes Myla will disappear for days or weeks, leaving a young Olivia alone. James, Myla's married boyfriend, would bring by groceries and check up on her. Eventually, Olivia rebels, as teenagers will, and when Myla causes an incident that threatens Olivia's status with her new friends, Olivia runs away. Years later, Olivia is bringing her teenage daughter Carrie and eight-year-old son Daniel back to New York City after a separation from her husband. While visiting Ocean Vista, Daniel disappears and Olivia and Carrie must find him. The storyline moves back and forth in time, and as it progresses, we see how the bipolar disorder that plagued Myla is genetic. Olivia has bipolar tendencies, and although her husband at first is able to handle the situation, when Daniel begins to exhibit the signs of it at a very early age, he bails on the family, throwing them away like he throws away broken household items. The last half of the story is really gripping, and there are some twists to the storyline that I didn't see coming, but they add so much to the emotional power of this sad story. Cornwell does an amazing job putting us into the middle of this family and showing us how Myla's illness rips through her family and causes repercussions even many years later. Cornwell's writing is lyrical and her descriptions put such vivid pictures in your head, like the "crepe-paper elbows" of elderly women swimming in the ocean, and her realization that her teenage Carrie is becoming her own person, imagining her "writhing on her bed, shedding her skin, moving from a larval to a pupal state". The title of the book comes from this passage about the power of the past."The past, I feel in this moment, is something that parents dangle in front of their children, something hoarded and valuable that we can never touch. They pretend to share, pulling out old albums at Christmastime, but under their breath, they are saying, This is what I had before I had you."Mental illness is something that our society ignores and doesn't want to face. Cornell shows us the despair and difficulty of living with people who have bipolar disorder, the not knowing what to do to help someone who doesn't seem to want help. This is a heartbreaking story that has stayed inside my head and heart, and if good fiction creates empathy in the reader, then What I Had Before I Had You qualifies as good fiction.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Largely disappointed character development started strong but fell flat. Insight into the marriage needed further development as well as carrie. Great potential everywhere but lack of follow through. Interesting conclusion. C+ s
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm torn between three and four stars. Cornwell is deeply talented, and so many scenes of the narrator's adolescence were beautifully rendered and mysterious in exactly the right way. For example, I was particularly struck by the early scene where Olivia climbs the abandoned roller coaster, and all the early sightings of her doppelganger sisters were hauntingly tense. Unfortunately though, the book had little emotional resonance for me. While I understood that Olivia had a disorder that might account for her lack of affect, as a mother myself, her maddeningly casual reaction to the loss of her son simply did not scan. As I said,  I realized her carelessness might have been meant to reflect her mental illness, but Olivia's attitude was echoed in the reactions of other characters. The father, for example, had a similarly  laid-back reaction to the news that his young son was missing. As the story progressed, I began to feel as if the emotional reasoning that underlaid the plot was absent. Olivia's discoveries about her family were far-fetched, but I could have gone along if I had believed the emotional reasoning beyond the actions. Sadly, I couldn't. I was disappointed that all of the wonderful mystery of the opening condensed into a bland accounting of characters by the end. I do recommend this as a worthwhile book. Cornwell is a talented prose stylist and many facets of the story work remarkably well.  
anonomas More than 1 year ago
This book brought back lots of memories!