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What I Had Before I Had You
Cover of What I Had Before I Had You
What I Had Before I Had You
A Novel
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A woman must face the truth about her past in this luminous, evocative novel of parents and children, guilt and forgiveness, memory and magical thinking.Olivia Reed was fifteen when she left her...
A woman must face the truth about her past in this luminous, evocative novel of parents and children, guilt and forgiveness, memory and magical thinking.Olivia Reed was fifteen when she left her...
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Description-

  • A woman must face the truth about her past in this luminous, evocative novel of parents and children, guilt and forgiveness, memory and magical thinking.

    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.

About the Author-

  • Sarah Cornwell grew up in Narberth, Pennsylvania. Her fiction has appeared in the Pushcart Prize Anthology, Missouri Review, Mid-American Review, Gulf Coast, and Hunger Mountain, among others, and her screen- writing has been honored with a Humanitas Prize. A former James Michener Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, Sarah has worked as an investigator of police misconduct, an MCAT tutor, a psychological research interviewer, and a toy seller. She lives in Los Angeles.

Reviews-

  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from October 14, 2013
    The “you” in the title of this psychological mystery debut refers to children, not partners. In Olivia Reed’s case, what her mother Myla had before she had her were stillborn twins, infant ghosts she’s told will follow her through life. But ghosts take different forms as the novel unfolds: are they spirits of dead children, as professional “psychic” Myla insists? Or are they the teenage girls that Olivia begins to “see” when she is 15, believing herself the inheritor of her mother’s gift? Are they dead souls come of age, her living sisters, or mad hallucinations? The answers shift as the narrative switches back and forth between the summer of 1987, when Olivia was an adolescent, and the present, when she’s traveling with her two children, Daniel and Carrie, after her divorce and revisits her hometown of Ocean Vista, N.J. In this haunted place, “the locus of guilt,” she loses nine-year-old Daniel, who is bipolar, on the beach. His disappearance drives the narrative forward, but what’s more captivating is Olivia’s relationship with her beautiful, unbalanced mother and its parallels with her relationship with Carrie, as well as Olivia’s ruminations on the meanings of mental illness. “What I had before I had you” are hidden pasts, leaving indelible traces. Depth of insight, dreamy prose, and an engrossing storyline mark this wonderful debut.

  • Kirkus

    December 15, 2013
    The magic of madness or the sobriety of sanity--if you had to choose, could you? Twenty years ago, Olivia fled Ocean Vista, fled her psychic mother, fled her betrayed friends. Now recently divorced, she has come home with her teenage daughter, Carrie, and her 9-year-old son, Daniel, in tow. Like Olivia, Daniel struggles with bipolar disorder. Her husband could live with Olivia's battle but not Daniel's. But Daniel disappears, and as Olivia searches for him, she must confront the ghosts of her past, which lead her back to the summer when she left her mother. Always a loner, Olivia never fit in. At home, her mother, Myla, charted the ebb and flow of her energies, read fortunes and spun a fantasy world in which her twin daughters--daughters who were stillborn in 1971--lived on, forever babies. Sometimes Myla disappeared for a few days. Yet life with brilliant, adventurous, unpredictable Myla sparkled with excitement. The summer of 1987, however, changed everything. While swimming, Olivia saw her sisters for the first time as teenagers, not babies. Myla ignored the vision, which prompted Olivia to grab her camera in search of photographic evidence. Eventually, she did find her sisters again, only to have them run off. Yet they led Olivia to a new group of friends, including Kandy, the charismatic leader of the Emerald Crowd; Pam, who painted Olivia into the clique's mural; and beautiful Jake. Delighted to finally belong, Olivia was dangerously untutored in the ways of friendship. The quest to find her sisters soon unearthed dark family secrets, which shredded her relationship with Myla. Only the search for Daniel can heal the still-raw wounds. Gorgeously crafted, Cornwell's tale shimmers and shimmies with nimble dialogue and poignantly flawed characters. Grafting magical thinking onto gimlet-eyed acceptance, Cornwell's debut novel enchants.

    COPYRIGHT(2013) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from December 1, 2013
    Leaving behind a failed marriage, Olivia returns to visit the Jersey Shore neighborhood in which she grew up. She has not been back in decades, reluctant to face the demons of her past. Now she visits with her children on their way to begin life anew in New York. Shortly after their arrival, though, her son, Daniel, recently diagnosed with early-onset bipolar disorder, vanishes from her side. The ensuing search through the haunts of her adolescence brings back painful memories of growing up with her psychic fortune-telling mother and the revelations that drove her to leave home at 15. But confronting the past may give Olivia what she needs to face the future. Cornwell's first novel is an authentic and artful coming-of-age story that is uniquely multigenerational. In lyrical language, she renders a turbulent adolescence that is achingly believable and a heartfelt tribute to the struggles of mental illness. Readers are kept on their toes as Olivia's story, by turns endearing and suspenseful, unfolds and the search for Daniel drags on. With great attention to detail and a smooth flow between past and present, this emotionally charged narrative is as memorable as it is compelling.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2013, American Library Association.)

  • Elle

    "[A] bewitching first novel. . . . In chapters alternating between the puzzling, pressurized present and eerily predictive past, Cornwell weaves the novel's double narrative with the deft touch of a magician and the sure hand of a confident writer to watch." — Elle

    "Twining Olivia's teenage past with her grown-up present, Cornwell tells a sensitive, clear-eyed, and ever so slightly supernatural story of a family shaped by mental illness." — Boston Globe

    "An incandescent debut by turns thrilling and meditative; part coming of age novel, part exploration of the fragility and complexity of love and family. Sarah Cornwell is a writer to be celebrated and watched." — Philipp Meyer, author of The Son

    "Captivating. . . . Depth of insight, dreamy prose, and an engrossing storyline mark this wonderful debut." — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

    "This debut novel blew me away with the beauty of its language and the honesty of its narrator. . . . The reality of living with a parent with mental illness, and how it impacts a child, is heartbreakingly beautiful in Cornwell's capable hands." — Jodi Picoult Lists Her Favorite Reads of 2014, Amazon

    "Sarah Cornwell has a brilliant eye for the telling detail, and a wonderfully original way of embodying family history. I was captivated by her memorable characters and the perfectly paced revelations of their surprising relationships." — Andrea Barrett, author of Archangel and The Voyage of the Narwhal

    "This is a remarkable debut by an award-winning short story writer; Cornwell's psychological study of the stormy relationships in one particular family is engrossing and insightful." — Library Journal

    "Sarah Cornwell's first novel is as unnerving and authoritative as Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black. This is a beautifully written book, bold and wounding. Read it and you will never look at the Jersey Shore in quite the same way again." — James Magnuson, author of Famous Writers I Have Known

    "Cornwell's first novel is an authentic and artful coming-of-age story that is uniquely multigenerational. . . . With great attention to detail and a smooth flow between past and present, this emotionally charged narrative is as memorable as it is compelling." — Booklist (starred review)

    "Gorgeously crafted, Cornwell's tale shimmers and shimmies with nimble dialogue and poignantly flawed characters. . . . Grafting magical thinking onto gimlet-eyed acceptance, Cornwell's debut novel enchants." — Kirkus Reviews

    "Cornwell's debut novel is equal parts page-turner and dreamy meditation on the nature of mental illness. . . . An important exploration of the deepest philosophical inquiries into the nature of existence, family, and love. I highly recommend." — Antonya Nelson, author of Bound

    "Only a few writers can genuinely capture that stormy period between childhood and adulthood and Sarah Cornwell is one of them. . . . The result is an exhilarting, hurtling, unstoppable ride for the reader." — Margot Livesey, author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy

    "[Cornwell] handles the delicate subject of mental illness and the realities of living with a mood disorder with compassion and grace. . . . [A] thoughtful and powerful debut." — BookPage

    "Cornwell's debut is a dreamy trip to the past with one foot planted in the...

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