Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review: "What I Had Before I Had You" by Sarah Cornwell

Title: What I Had Before I Had You
AuthorSarah Cornwell
Publisher: Harper
Date of Publication: January 7, 2014
Pages: 288

How I Heard About It: Another great find from a tour hosted by TLC Book Tours! Thank you to the publisher for the review copy! You can check out the rest of the tour here.  

"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 the old albums at Christmastime, but under their breath, they are saying, This is what I had before I had you."

Two Sentence Summary: Olivia has just gone through a messy divorce and must leave her beloved home in Austin with her two children (a teenage girl and a bipolar 9 year old son). As she returns to her hometown of Ocean Vista, she is haunted by memories of her past there (largely centered around her mother's denial about the death of her sisters and unexplained disappearances), and Olivia's struggles to parent her children become intricately overlaid upon her own childhood struggles.

[[author Sarah Cornwell]]

Things I Think: Sarah Cornwell has had several short stories published (and has won myriad awards) but this is her first novel. To use the word "engaging" falls short of the mark in describing the braided plot, with its hints of ... what? magical realism? mania? that perpetually overturn expectations.

This book is very much of patterns: Olivia's mother, a psychic, cycles through lengthy phases of manic productivity and near catatonia. Her son is officially diagnosed as bipolar. As Olivia reminisces about her mother's sporadic evacuations from their home (with no notice, no way to reach her, and no explanation upon her return), she finds that her son has wandered off on the Ocean Vista boardwalk and can't be located. 

Cornwell explores Olivia's position as a seeming "hinge" between these two, unraveling landscapes, and in doing so creates a mesmerizing tension, rapidly transitioning between timelines and trials. The writing is lyrical, but not in a manner that overshadows/grinds against gritty circumstance. I'm on a quest now to find more of this author's work!


Heather J @ TLC Book Tours said...

You know it's a good read when you can use "engaging" and "mesmerizing" to describe it!

Thanks for being on the tour.

Sarah Cornwell said...

Hi Karen, and thanks for this very perceptive review--I think of 'What I Had Before I Had You' as a story much occupied with patterns and it's lovely to see that element land with a reader. If you or the readers of your blog have any questions about the book, I'd be happy to answer!