What I Had before I Had You
Sarah Cornwell
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Buy *What I Had before I Had You* by Sarah Cornwell online

What I Had before I Had You
Sarah Cornwell
288 pages
January 2014
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Heartbreaking and emotional, Cornwell’s first novel is packed with rich imagery, irresistible storytelling and vivid characterizations, and her Olivia is certainly one of the most appealing characters in contemporary fiction. Sensitive, intuitive and caring, Olivia is a mother for the ages as we watch her desperately try to find her bipolar son, Daniel, who has disappeared from Ocean Vista’s ramshackle boardwalk.

Building Olivia’s story in poetic description, Cornwell makes us understand Olivia’s urges and feelings and her sometimes difficult relationships with Carrie, her sullen, auburn-haired teenage daughter, and Myla, her glamorous mother, a sick but beautiful psychic who terrorized Olivia throughout much of the childhood. Finally able to face the ghosts of her past, Olivia has promised the kids a trip to the beach but as they near Ocean Vista, Olivia is feeling squeamish. Although her childhood home has long since been demolished, Olivia is thrust back into her past life. Her living mother’s only child, Olivia has grown older buoyed along by Myra’s stories of her stillborn twin daughters, the “two infant ghosts.”

Memory reaches for Olivia with “seaweed fingers,” lifting her out of her old green bike to pedal back into that terrible summer, the last of her childhood. Cornwell builds Olivia’s unique voice as she attempts to deal with her recollections of eccentric, irresponsible Myla. At times confusing, since a great deal of Olivia’s story is told in non-linear fashion, the catalyst for her backward trajectory comes from the sudden disappearance of Daniel. As Olivia and Carrie (and the local police) frantically search for him, Cornwell’s descriptive passages unfold a decaying Ocean Vista that glistens like a river amid the empty and littered lots. Here the decaying Emerald Hotel becomes a symbol for Olivia’s remembrances: her adolescent affair with handsome Jake and the nights when she partied with her best friend, Kandy.

Olivia acknowledges time slipping past. She once made her way boldly through the dark town, accepting her first invitation into “this rule-breaking world.“ She blames herself for the life she has lived: “the unfaithful wife, the cold mother, the poor role model, the flawed chromosome.” Her dead sisters meanwhile remain corporeal, like “a series of ghosts that pass among the living.“ In their outdated dresses, they seem to be in equal parts real and unreal.

Moving between Olivia’s present and past, Cornwell perfectly illustrates the rocky path that is bipolar disorder, a clash of paranoia and need that draws mother and daughter evermore into the spinning morass of domestic catastrophe, a shared delusional disorder that threatens both the sanity of the mother and later the grandson. Myla, to her detriment, is consumed with her daughter’s rebellion, tenaciously watching and judging. It’s not surprising that teenage Olivia’s connection with Jake grows in secret, in subversive glances and trysts that tightens with a stomach-clenching feeling: “how sinful it must look to my furious jailer mother.” Thus begin the years of estrangement, Olivia shutting out the woman who inadvertently sabotages her future, while in New York, the patience of kindly Aunt Christie is Olivia’s only link to the secret that will come to haunt them all.

This is what literary fiction is all about. There’s the glimmering and speed of things, the sense of being chosen, the aching thing that seems like love but isn’t as Cornwell shepherds us through her series of valuable insights into the trials of bipolar disorder as seen though the eyes of three generations. Olivia and Myla’s relationship is filled with landmines: Myla is unstable, narcissistic and abusive, but she does indeed love her daughter, and clearly Olivia’s lack of feeling is symptomatic of being terribly abused. She acts out in bouncing off of her mother’s illness, which in turn ricochets into her present existence: “I have been a tourist in his life and in Ocean Vista, and in my own life."

From the heady, drunken summers with Jake and Kandy in 1987 to the darker scenes in 2007 where Olivia frantically searches for her beloved Daniel, the author—in a richly woven tapestry—peels away the complicated layers of confusion and regret until the present appears, clean and simple, a refinement of history’s clutter, where Daniel is once again found safe and returned to the bosom of his loving mother.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Michael Leonard, 2014

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