Written By: Sarah Cornwell
Narration By: Karen White
Published By: Harper Collins Audio January 7, 2014
Length: 8 hours and 17 minutes
Source: Purchased from Audible
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. (publisher)
When I started this book, I didn’t read the summary above, I knew far less details and yet I was pulled to learn more. I’d heard some others talking about it too, so the audio was the way I chose.
The book began with Olivia taking her kids back to the Jersey Shore where she grew up, Immediately the sights, sounds and smells along the boardwalk take her back to the summer she was 15. In alternating voices of young and adult Olivia we learn more and more of her life. Growing up Olivia doesn’t understand her mother’s behavior, her bursts of energy or her periods of disappearing. Olivia detests the lost babies her mother continues to love, perhaps more than her. With a nursery fully set up, and baby food in the pantry, it’s an odd thing to explain to others. In many ways Olivia is raising herself, and that summer of 15 she was wild and mostly free.
Adult Olivia is so very different, responsible and yet she is still somehow running away from her life yet again. Her divorce has left her deeply hurt, so she’s left that life and part of the country behind, eager to begin again…her only plan is relocation, not how she’s actually going to support her children. Daniel’s running away is distressing, but that is what sets her mind reeling, remembering her childhood and how she couldn’t wait to get away from her mother. Daniel is just a boy, struggling with his bipolar disorder and he’s run off in an area he really doesn’t know. I can’t imagine the maternal fear!
What Olivia discovers after her 15 year old adventure will forever change her life. I wasn’t expecting what she found, even though I suspected the mental health issues were at the core of her family’s dysfunction.
This is a beautifully read book, Karen White is one of my favorite narrators and she has proven again how she can create images in my mind with her inflection and range of narration style.
This doesn’t seem like a debut novel, it’s so well done, moving simply between the two time periods. Sarah Cornwell writes with sensitivity to her subject matter but with the honesty of the turmoil mental illness inflicts on families. You can learn more about her on her website. This is not a feel good book, it’s an important one, with a message loud and clear. If your a fan of books about family and coming of age stories I believe this will be a book you’ll enjoy. Strongly recommend.