Monday, January 27, 2014

Book Review: "What I Had Before I Had You" by Sarah Cornwell

Sarah Cornwell's What I Had Before I Had You is a beautiful, poignant, and exquisitely written novel about the ripple effects mental illness causes on a family.

Olivia Reed was raised by her dynamic and manic mother, Myla, a practicing psychic, in the Jersey Shore town of Ocean Vista. Fiercely protective of Olivia one minute, and disappearing to leave her home alone for days on end the next, Myla taught her daughter to believe in the powers of the universe. She also taught Olivia to believe in the ghosts of her twin baby sisters, who died before Olivia was born. Myla kept the nursery a shrine to these babies that never lived, even going so far as keeping baby food and diapers in the house, and leaving food on their highchairs.

The summer that Olivia turned 15, she saw her sisters for the first time, as teenagers, and believed that this sighting signified she was coming into her own powers, much like her mother. But when Myla disputes this vision, Olivia is motivated for the first time to challenge her mother's constraints and begin living a carefree life, determined to find out the truth of her sisters. This journey of discovery teaches Olivia about friendship, love, and loss, but also uncovers some truths she never expected, truths which lead to an irreparable rift in her family and change the course of her life.

"I left my mother here when she was sick and sad and alone. When I was fifteen, someone lowered a rope into my well, and I climbed it and pulled it up after me. I like to think that if my mother had waited two or three more years than she did, I would have grown up enough to come home to her. But I can't be sure."

Years later, Olivia returns to Ocean Vista with her own teenage daughter, Carrie, and her nine-year-old son, Daniel, who has recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which served as the catalyst for the end of her marriage. Her return to her hometown sparks memories of that tumultuous summer, of how her life changed, and of the guilt she feels about her relationship with her mother. When Daniel suddenly disappears, the search for him forces her to examine the course her life has taken and how mental illness has shaped it, and the role her mother has played all along.

What I Had Before I Had You shifts back and forth between the present and that summer of 1987. It's a moving, emotional book that captures all too well the highs and lows, the challenges and surprises that mental illness brings to a family, and how even years later these issues still surface and shape the course of people's lives. It's also the story of the fragility of human relationships, the lies we tell each other and ourselves, and the randomness of memory.

"I've heard that each time you remember something, the memory is rewritten by the neurons in your brain; that the memories you summon frequently are molded and smoothed—clay on the potter's wheel of your mind—while memories you leave buried can bubble up with photographic precision."

Sarah Cornwell is a tremendously talented writer. Her use of language was almost lyrical, as you can see by just a few of the passages I chose to incorporate into this review. While I had a little trouble at the start trying to figure out what the whole ghost idea was about, I was quickly hooked on the book, and as with so many books I love, was torn between wanting to devour it in one or two sittings, or wanting to savor it. (I chose the former, and don't regret it.) I look forward to seeing what's next in Cornwell's career, because this book shows that she has exceptional talent and promise.

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