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

About the book, What I Had Before I Had You

What I Had Before I Had You

Written in radiant prose and with stunning psychological acuity, award-winning author Sarah Cornwell’s What I Had Before I Had You is a deeply poignant story that captures the joys and sorrows of growing up and learning to let go.

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.

Buy a Copy:

Amazon | Barnes & Noble

About the author, Sarah Cornwell

Sarah Cornwell

Sarah Cornwell grew up in Narberth, Pennsylvania. Her fiction has appeared in the 2013 Pushcart Prize Anthology, the Missouri Review, Mid-American Review, Gulf Coast, and Hunger Mountain, among others, and her screenwriting has been honored with a Humanitas Prize.

A former James Michener Fellow at UT-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.

Connect with Sarah:


My Thoughts

Like Olivia Reed, I spent the first several years of my life (and many summers thereafter) on the Jersey shore. It was, in fact, that particular setting that drew me to this book. In my mind, Ocean Vista is much more like vintage Asbury Park and Ocean Grove, though my guess is that it’s really based on Seaside Heights.

But the setting, while important, takes a back seat to the story, and wow! Sarah Cornwell weaves a damn good story.

At heart, it’s the story of mothers and daughters: Olivia as daughter, humoring her mother by ‘feeding’ the ghosts of her twin sisters, dealing with hurt and pain when she learns those sisters are not so ethereal as she was rased to believe Olivia as mother, with a bratty teen of her own and a special needs child, riding the edge between patience and frustration, always loving her children but sometimes not liking them very much.

Cornwell tells both halves of the story with grace and ease. She puts in enough detail that we can see the cast-away baby food, smell the greasy boardwalk pizza, hear the crinkle of the plastic on the perfectly used diapers thrown out each week, taste the salt-water taffy.

She leaves enough to the imagination that only a careful reading shows us what is real and what isn’t. She writes real people and real situations but with a magical feel that draws you in and compels you to continue.

Translation: Reading this book is like riding a Ferris Wheel. At times you’re at the bottom of the loop, and at times you’re at the peak, but you’re always along for the ride, and from a good portion of it, the view is incredible.

Goes well with A hotdog, crinkle cut fries, and rootbeer, with cotton candy for dessert.

TLC Book Tours

This review is part of a virtual book tour. For more information, visit the tour page at TLC Book Tours.