REVIEW: WHAT I HAD BEFORE I HAD YOU, BY SARAH CORNWELL

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It is summer when Olivia, newly single mom to Carrie and Daniel, takes them on a road trip to Ocean Vista, the place on the Jersey Shore where she grew up. A place where she is hoping to find something…she knows not what. But it might be the very thing that helps her understand and make sense of her world.

They are enroute to their new home In New York, a home that is half hers, and where she spent some of her teen years. It is where the moving pod awaits them.

In back and forth moments, Olivia’s past and present weave themselves around her, in a dreamlike manner. We see her as a teenager here at this very shore, exploring her independence and rebelling against her mother’s strangeness. Her mother’s psychic “otherness,” her disappearances, the very essence of her illness. Something that Olivia would not come to understand for many years. A thing that is part of her, and now is in Daniel.

He was diagnosed with his bipolar disorder the year before. Olivia blames the end of her marriage to Sam on his inability to cope. But she knows there is more to it.

So when Daniel disappears one day at the shore, Olivia’s search takes her into all the remote places of her life as she looks for her missing son. It is almost like a remembering and an exploration…a quest for herself, her mother, and now her son.

What is the meaning of Olivia’s flashes at the shore long ago? Those “sisters” she keeps seeing, who are fleeing from her? Are they her mother’s lost “twins,” the ones she described to Olivia? Are they ghosts? Or has she conjured them in her imagination? What will Olivia find when she goes to New York that summer as a teen? What unanswered questions will lead to even more?

A story about fractured families, mental illness, and one woman’s desire to know herself, while also rediscovering who her mother was, What I Had Before I Had You: A Novel is a disturbing, sometimes mystical, and oftentimes illusory tale about finding oneself. I loved some of the lyrical writing, although I was also lost at times; the shifting perspectives and scenes, going back and forth in time, were hard to follow. But I felt I had a complete grasp of Olivia’s first person voice, and really enjoyed this passage near the end, as she talks about her mother’s untreated illness:

“Here is what I would say to those people who would judge her, what I would say to myself on some days: What if all the transcendent moments of your life, the sound-track moments, the radiant detail, the gleaming thing at the center of life that loves you, that loves beauty–God or whatever you call it–what if all this were part of your illness? Would you seek treatment? I have, and sometimes I wonder if the greatest passions are just out of my reach. And sometimes I am so grateful….”

An unforgettable story….4 stars.

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