New Fiction: What I Had Before I Had You – Sarah Cornwell

Cornwell is a Michener Fellow and Pushcart prize winner whose fans include Philipp Meyer, Andrea Barrett and Margot Livesey. While her debut mines familiar territory—coming of age, parenting, family—she comes at it slantwise. This dreamy, suspenseful story might be about the supernatural … or mental illness. Should be a great book club pick. The advance reviews are terrific and PW does a nice job laying out a tricky plot structure:

The ‘you’ in the title of this psychological mystery debut refers to children, not partners. In Olivia Reed’s case, what her mother Myla had before she had her were stillborn twins, infant ghosts she’s told will follow her through life. But ghosts take different forms as the novel unfolds… Are they dead souls come of age, her living sisters, or mad hallucinations? The answers shift as the narrative switches back and forth between the summer of 1987, when Olivia was an adolescent, and the present, when she’s traveling with her two children…[and] she loses nine-year-old Daniel, who is bipolar, on the beach. His disappearance drives the narrative forward, but what’s more captivating is Olivia’s relationship with her beautiful, unbalanced mother and its parallels with her relationship with [her daughter] Carrie…. Depth of insight, dreamy prose, and an engrossing storyline mark this wonderful debut.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Cornwell’s first novel is an authentic and artful coming-of-age story that is uniquely multigenerational. In lyrical language, she renders a turbulent adolescence that is achingly believable and a heartfelt tribute to the struggles of mental illness…. With great attention to detail and a smooth flow between past and present, this emotionally charged narrative is as memorable as it is compelling.”
— Booklist (starred review)

“Gorgeously crafted, Cornwell’s tale shimmers and shimmies with nimble dialogue and poignantly flawed characters. . . . Grafting magical thinking onto gimlet-eyed acceptance, Cornwell’s debut novel enchants.”
— Kirkus Reviews

PW also did an interesting interview with Cornwell in which she discusses mental illness and perception in the book: Answers to All Our Questions: PW Talks with Sarah Cornwell

What I Had Before I Had You (9780062237842) Sarah Cornwell. $24.99 hardcover. 1/7/14 on sale.


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