Tuesday, February 4, 2014

BLOG TOUR: What I Had Before I Had You by Sarah Cornwell

Title: What I Had Before I Had You
Author: Sarah Cornwell
Genre: Adult Contemporary Fiction
Publisher: Harper
Release Date: January 7/2014
Adquired: Print copy provided by publisher
Goodreads: ADD

In What I Had Before I Had You by Sarah Cornwell, a woman must face the truth about her past in this luminous, evocative literary novel of parents and children, guilt and forgiveness, memory and magical thinking, set in the faded, gritty world of the New Jersey Shore.

Olivia was only fifteen the summer she left her hometown of Ocean Vista. Two decades later, on a visit with her children, her nine-year-old son Daniel, recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, disappears. Olivia’s search for him sparks tender and painful memories of her past—of her fiercely loving and secretive mother, Myla, an erratic and beautiful psychic, and the discovery of heartbreaking secrets that shattered her world.


You know how, sometimes, you read a synopsis, and fall entirely in love with what could be written inside a book's pages? You know how, more often than not, the synopsis of said book ends up being a horrendously exaggerated description of a narrative that just fell flat? What I Had Before You was a win-win, straight across the board. The publisher promised me an "evocative literary novel," and that, my dear readers, is exactly what I got.

What I Had Before You begins with a vision. Olivia is convinced that she's spotted her deceased twin sisters, fully alive, and running around town like two normal, teenaged girls. The shock is well warranted, as Olivia has spent a lifetime convinced, by her psychic mother, that her sisters were stillborn at birth. Skip to present day, Olivia, newly divorced, has arrived back at Ocean Vista with her children: Daniel, her nine-year old with an acute case of bipolar disorder, and her daughter Carrie, who has hit the ripe and temperamental age of 15. The narrative navigates between time periods, as Olivia relives a past that's becoming hard to ignore since stepping back into her hometown, and suffers through the present time, as she searches tirelessly for her son Daniel, who seems to have disappeared into thin air.

Sarah Cornwell has a gift for writing scenes in a very realistic tone, based on the time in which it took place. It's often difficult, when narratives switch back and forth from past to present, to follow along without getting confused, or having to re-read the last couple of pages. Cornwell did this with ease, and with a confidence that really shone through her writing. Without a doubt, I knew when I was being brought back into the tumultuous realm of Olivia's past. The references were extremely accurate, and the language so beautifully on point for a teenager in the 80's. I didn't live through that time myself, but I was placed in a mindset that forgave my ignorance, because Cornwell's writing was heart-wrenchingly detailed.

Biopolar disorder is a diagnosis that has endlessly fascinated me, and to read about the depths and curves of it's symptoms in What I Had Before I Had You, was a powerful experience. Cornwell plotted a map through generations, a string that tied characters together not only by blood, but by a specific set of emotions that became the downfall of all three: Daniel, Olivia, and Myla. There was so much truth, and intensity, behind Cornwell's words, the way she told a story that was so much more than what it was written about. The dynamics of family, of a broken home-one in which I'm all too familiar with.

What I Had Before You is a book that needs to be experienced by all, and appreciated for the fact that Sarah Cornwell brought her entire self to this debut, and came out a winner, on so many levels.  
Recommended for Fans of: Adult Contemporary, mental illness in fiction, Sharp Objects by Gillian Flyyn, Web of Angels by Lillian Nattel, Love Water Memory by Jennie Shortridge, We Are Water by Wally Lamb.


Sarah Cornwell grew up in Narberth, Pennsylvania. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including the 2013 Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Missouri Review, Mid-American Review, Gulf Coast, Hunger Mountain, and Alaska Quarterly Review, and has been honored with a Pushcart Prize, the 2008 Gulf Coast Fiction Prize, and finalist honors for the Keene Prize for Literature. In 2010, her screenwriting was recognized with the Humanitas Student Drama Fellowship. Sarah's debut novel What I Had Before I Had You will be published by HarperCollins in January 2014.

Sarah is grateful for support from the Michener Center for Writers at UT-Austin, where she was a James Michener Fellow, as well as the Millay Colony for the Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and Norton Island Writers Colony. She was the Spring 2012 Writer-in-Residence at Interlochen Arts Academy and a 2011 Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation Creative Fellow for Pennsylvania State. Sarah has worked as an investigator of police misconduct, a writer in the schools, an MCAT tutor, a psychological research interviewer, a toy seller, and a screenwriter. She lives in Los Angeles.

Contact Links
Website | Twitter | Facebook


Thank-you to Trish from TLC Book Tours for hosting this tour, and to Harper Collins for sending me a print copy to review!

CLICK HERE to follow the rest of the tour


  1. Hi Reeka! I'm so glad the book delivered the kind of experience you were hoping for! I'd be happy to answer any questions you or your readers might have. Thanks for taking the time to write this lovely review!

  2. Thanks for being a part of the tour! I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.

  3. I love this cover and the synopsis. I'm glad it lives up to expectations... added to my wishlist. :) Great review!

  4. I love mental illness in fiction! In fact, books with that aspect stick with me longer than most. I'm so glad you loved this one -- it sounds great!

  5. This is a great review! I love your read-alike based recommendations at the end, but most of all, I like that you don't bury the lead. Is it the evocative literary fiction I am hoping to find? You don't mince words, and now I am bumping this way up on my to-read list.


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