Thursday, December 4, 2014

Review: What I Had Before I Had You

Summary: 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. -- Harper Perennial

At this year's BEA, I attended a speed dating event for potential book club books. I think I've referenced that event about ten times so far this year because I had such a great time. One of the novels that sounded fantastic was WHAT I HAD BEFORE I HAD YOU by Sarah Cornwell. I was so intrigued by this book that I selected it as my book club selection for November.

WHAT I HAD BEFORE YOU tells the story of Olivia Reed, a mother who is returning to her hometown on the Jersey Shore. She hasn't been back for twenty years, since she ran away when she was 15; and she's now returning with her two children, Carrie and Daniel, her nine year old with bipolar disorder. Between returning home and having thoughts about her troubled past, Olivia misses seeing Daniel disappear.

Olivia's search brings to light many of her memories when she was a 15 year old teen living in Ocean Vista. Her mother, Myla was self-proclaimed psychic who had severe mood and behavior swings. Myla was extremely overprotective of Olivia and brought her up to believe that the ghosts of her twins were regular visitors to the household. Needless to say, Olivia didn't have a very secure upbringing!

One day, Olivia sees her sisters playing at the beach and she begins to think that she has her mother's psychic powers. However, Myla quickly poo poos that causing Olivia to wonder what's real about her life. As a result, Olivia sets out to discover the truth and learns more than she ever expected about her mother and her family.

It's hard to believe that WHAT I HAD BEFORE I HAD YOU is the author's first book. It is extremely well written with some beautiful prose, but it also has a element of mystery/suspense. It was also thought-provoking (always a good thing in my mind), and it moved me. All in all, a great start to what I'm sure will be a successful career for Ms. Cornwell.

One thing that definitely stood out to me about this novel was how it explored mental illness. I thought I was somewhat familiar with bipolar disorder, but WHAT I HAD BEFORE I HAD YOU brought it to a new level for me. I found Daniel's behavior to be interesting, but what I appreciated even more was how Myra's mental issues affected Olivia. I honestly felt the portrayal of Olivia's teen years was brutally honest and so real.

I also really liked that this novel had an element of mystery to it. I honestly wasn't sure if Myra was seeing ghosts or real girls, and then if they were real, who were they? In addition, I was extremely curious about where Daniel went. I certainly wasn't expecting this book to have this suspense angle, and I admit I was very surprised when I discovered the truth. While I wouldn't say this novel was a true mystery, I did find the questions about Olivia's past to be intriguing; and they definitely made me turn the pages.

And last but not least, the stories in WHAT I HAD BEFORE I HAD YOU were told in such a unique fashion. Olivia's story went back and forth between the present and the past, and I absolutely loved how the author blended the stories. There were parts of this novel that seemed almost manic and were definitely blurred, and at first, I was a bit confused. However, once I realized what the author was doing, I thought it was brilliant! I also appreciated how the author showed the similarities (and differences) in Myra and Olivia's relationship with Olivia and Carrie's relationship.

It should be obvious given both the description of the WHAT I HAD BEFORE I HAD YOU and my thoughts about the novel that this book would make an excellent book club discussion. There are so many things to discuss including mother/daughter relationships, memory, mental illness, acceptance, forgiveness, family, friendship, and more. In fact, there is a wonderful reading guide with eleven questions although I'm not certain that you will need it to drive discussion.

While I absolutely loved so many things about WHAT I HAD BEFORE I HAD YOU, I have to tell you that my book club wasn't entirely in agreement. A few of my friends had issues with the ending... and to be honest, I definitely see where they are coming from. However, despite the different views, I think I can safely say that we all found this novel to be extremely discussion-worthy. We were especially focused on discussing mental illness and the effect it has on family and friends as well as the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters.

I'm actually a bit surprised that WHAT I HAD BEFORE I HAD YOU isn't popping up more as a potential book club read. This novel is beautifully written and it's also a page turner. Highly recommended.

Thanks to the publisher for providing copies of WHAT I HAD BEFORE I HAD YOU.


bermudaonion said...

I think parents mental health affects kids more than we'll ever know. This book sounds very thought provoking even if the ending bothers some people.

Karen White said...

I narrated this book and it was one of my favorites of 2013. Then my book club happened to choose it and I loved getting to discuss it with other people and think about it all over again. It was definitely provocative and a great discussion. Pretty much everyone agreed that the writing was top notch.
For people interested in the topic, I'd also recommend the memoir MAKE ME A MOTHER by Susanne Antonetta. She writes about choosing not to have a biological child because of her own mental illness, and of her experience as an adoptive mother.

Beth F said...

This was great audio. And I too really like this book

Belle Wong said...

This sounds like a great read. Adding it to my to-read list now.