BOOK TOUR REVIEW: What I Had Before I Had You by Sarah Cornwell
What I Had Before I Had You
by Sarah Cornwell
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.
MY THOUGHTS: 4 OUT OF 5 FLEURS DE LIS
I absolutely love reading stories that show the intricacies within families, and if it’s one that spans more than one generation, I’m definitely there. What I Had is a novel that delivers on both the fronts of being a story about a family, and just a good one overall.
The main character in this novel is Olivia Reed. The chapters alternate between the summer she was fifteen, and the modern day where she has brought her children to the seaside town where she grew up. Olivia remembers her mother, who suffered from bipolar disorder–which Olivia also has, and sadly, now has been passed on to her young son Daniel.
When Daniel suddenly disappears on the boardwalk, Olivia is instantly transported to her long ago past. Her mother was both the bright spot and the worst thing in her world. Olivia didn’t understand that her mom was sick, and you can’t help but shake your head about the thought of the two women both not really understanding what’s happening to them.
I absolutely loved the character development in this book. Though Olivia is the main character and the story is told in first person, you can clearly visualize what each person in her world is like. The descriptive passages, though at times rather wordy, are very vivid and make the reader feel as if they are in the scene.
It was painful to see Olivia and her mother struggle with something that to me, seems as if it could be controlled. But Olivia’s mom made the decision to live her life the way she did, and much of the time both she and her daughter suffered for it.
This is really a fascinating look at how mental illness affects not one person, but their entire environment. One decision–take a pill and maybe have your life diluted, or stay unmedicated and be a danger to yourself and others–is not as simple for one person as it is for another.
What I Had deserves a read from anyone who’s ever experienced or known someone with a mental illness. Heck, even if you haven’t, the book will give you insight into how a bipolar person’s mind works.
About the Author
Sarah Cornwell grew up in Narberth, Pennsylvania. Her fiction has appeared in the 2013 Pushcart Prize Anthology, the Missouri Review, Mid-American Review, Gulf Coast, andHunger Mountain, among others, and her screenwriting has been honored with a Humanitas Prize. A former James Michener Fellow at UT-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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