STARRED REVIEW
January 02, 2014

The complicated bonds of family

By Sarah Cornwell

There is surely no deeper or more important bond than the one between parent and child, but at times the double helix of DNA that ties one generation to the next can feel like shackles. In Sarah Cornwell’s first novel, What I Had Before I Had You, Olivia Reed learns this harsh truth first as a daughter, at the age of 15, and then again two decades later as a mother to two children of her own.

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There is surely no deeper or more important bond than the one between parent and child, but at times the double helix of DNA that ties one generation to the next can feel like shackles. In Sarah Cornwell’s first novel, What I Had Before I Had You, Olivia Reed learns this harsh truth first as a daughter, at the age of 15, and then again two decades later as a mother to two children of her own. You see, like her mother before her, Olivia suffers from bipolar disorder. What’s more, her youngest child, Daniel, has recently been diagnosed with an early onset form of the disorder as well.

Given Olivia’s own duality, it is only fitting that What I Had Before I Had You is a story in two parts. The present day story revolves around a freshly divorced Olivia on her way to start a new life with her children. While stopping back in her New Jersey hometown, a place in which she has not set foot in 20 years, her son Daniel goes missing. It is during her frantic search for him that the second story takes shape, as we learn about the tragic events of Olivia’s final summer in Ocean Vista—the one during which she discovers the truth about her mother’s eccentric ways, uncovers secrets so shocking that the world as she knows it will never be the same, and a rift is formed between daughter and mother that can never be mended. Forced to finally navigate the painful memories of her past, Olivia realizes that it is only by coming to terms with the illness that unites her with her mother—yet ultimately drove them apart—that she can move forward to become the mother she never had, but that her children need.

The pages of fiction are filled with fraught family sagas, but Cornwell breathes new life into the trope in What I Had Before I Had You. She handles the delicate subject of mental illness and the realities of living with a mood disorder with compassion and grace, providing a new lens through which to explore questions regarding the burden of inheritance, parent-child dynamics and what it truly means to come of age. Cornwell has previously garnered awards for her screenwriting and short fiction, but if this thoughtful and powerful debut is anything to go by, it won’t be long before she starts racking them up for her novels as well.

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What I Had Before I Had You

What I Had Before I Had You

By Sarah Cornwell
Harper
ISBN 9780062237842

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