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Thursday, January 9, 2014

What I Had BeforeI Had You by Sarah Cornwell

What I Had Before I Had You by Sarah Cornwell
Published by Harper ISBN 978-0-06-223784-2
Hardcover, $24.99, 288 pages

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.

rating 4 of 5

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on this tour. The rest of Sarah's stops are here.

Sarah’s Tour Stops

Tuesday, January 7th: Bibliophiliac
Wednesday, January 8th: Books à la Mode
Thursday, January 9th: bookchickdi
Monday, January 13th: missris
Tuesday, January 14th: …the bookworm…
Wednesday, January 15th: Jenn’s Bookshelves
Monday, January 20th: Kritters Ramblings
Monday, January 20th: Sweet Southern Home
Wednesday, January 22nd: Books in the Burbs
Monday, January 27th: The Well-Read Redhead
Tuesday, January 28th: Bibliotica
Wednesday, January 29th: Conceptual Reception
Thursday, January 30th: Turn the Page
Monday, February 3rd: Book-alicious Mama
Tuesday, February 4th: BoundbyWords
Sarah Cornwell can be found on Facebook here.


  1. I can see why this book is sticking with you - what a compelling read!

    Thanks for being on the tour.

  2. I have this on my list so I just skimmed your review (didn't want to be influenced!) -- but this is another twin book! I swear they are everywhere now. LOL

  3. Thank you for taking the time to write this kind review, Diane! I'm glad you enjoyed the book. If you or your readers have any questions, I'd be happy to answer them.