Book Review: ‘What I Had Before You’ by Sarah Cornwell

The blurb on the back of the advance reader’s copy states “Told in radiant prose, What I Had Before I Had You [by Sarah Cornwell] is a haunting story of parents and children, guilt and forgiveness, memory and magical thinking, that captures the joys and sorrows of growing up and learning to let go.”

A blurb that rings true, but pulls the reader into thinking that this book will be like something from Jodi Picoult; a book that is destined to be read by women in airports everywhere who pick it up because it is about women and family. This book does not deserve this blurb.

It deserves a better one.

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The main character, Olivia, narrates the tale of her and her two children, adolescent Carrie and the recently diagnosed bipolar nine-year-old Daniel, on the road to a new life. Recently divorced, Olivia takes her children from Texas to Manhattan via a stop at Ocean Vista on the Jersey Shore. She wants to show her kids the town she grew up in with her psychic mother. After a day at the beach, Daniel disappears. This triggers flashbacks to summer when Olivia was fifteen and also disappeared from Ocean Vista without a trace.

The story weaves back and forth from past to present. The reader is told the story of Olivia’s childhood. It was just her and her psychic mother living in this tiny summer resort town down the Shore. Her mother lives with the ghosts of the twin girls she had before Olivia was born, but who died at birth. As the story continues, you see that this is not the only idiosyncrasy that Olivia’s mother has; she’s also prone to wandering, taking trips that leave Olivia alone for days or weeks at a time. During one of these times, Olivia sees her dead sisters swimming. When her mother dismisses Olivia’s vision, Olivia goes on a quest to find out the truth. When the story switches back to the present, the reader is with Olivia, dragging her daughter around trying to find her son. She starts to lose it too, and the reader realizes that Daniel’s disorder is genetic.

Not many novels like to tackle mood disorders or mental illness. (And kudos to the author for using the word “disorder” when talking about being bipolar and not “illness.”) But Sarah Cornwell addresses being bipolar head on. Pulling no punches, Cornwell shows the ups and the downs of this disorder in beautiful and truthful prose. Olivia recounts her own expedience with the disorder and the ever changing game of what it takes to be stable, “There are times when my disorder gets wise to the chemicals I’m feeding it, and shape-shifts, resurges, bubbles up. I feel that heating-up feeling, a disproportionate joy, or a sour downward slide[…].” Cornwell explains the mood shifts in darkly humorous way, with mother and son asking “Did you eat Froot Loops?” when either seems a bit too happy.

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The best part? It’s not patronizing. Reading this book was like breathing after being underwater for a minute; you didn’t know how good it feels to breathe. What I Had Before I Had You takes a still taboo subject and explains it with grace; showing how different people with the same disorder can function differently. Cornwell shows the genetic side and the fears of the parent wondering if they have passed the gene on to their children. She shows the destructive nature of the disorder when it comes to loved ones; how it can lead to divorces or estranged siblings.

As debut novels go, Sarah Cornwell set the bar high for herself. With beautiful imagery, and prose that is not afraid to shy away from tough topics, What I Had Before I Had You, is an important book. Give this book to your bipolar friend or relative. Read this book yourself so you get a taste of the nuances of being bipolar. The cover and the back blurb will get those Jodi Picoult fans to pick the book up, but hand this book to the Kay Redfield Jamison fans too. This reviewer is calling it now: this will be a gigantic success for a book club. And as someone who bipolar herself, this reviewer cannot recommend this book enough.

Brava Sarah Cornwell, brava.

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