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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Review of "What I Had Before I Had You" by Sarah Cornwell


3 Stars

I read this book because it was chosen for our book club.  If it had not been for the fact that I didn’t want to show up without my reading done, I don’t think I would have finished this novel.  It has received many positive reviews, but the book just didn’t resonate with me.

Twenty years earlier, Olivia Reed fled Ocean Vista and her bipolar, psychic mother Myla.  Now she revisits with her teenaged daughter Carrie and her nine-year-old son Daniel.  The latter, like Olivia, struggles with bipolar disorder.  Daniel disappears and while they search for him, Olivia thinks about her past life on the Jersey Shore.  Her memories focus on 1987 when she gained some dangerous new friends and uncovered family secrets about her twin sisters who were stillborn in 1971 but lived forever as babies in Myla’s fantasy world.

The novel examines mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder.  Several family members (Myla, Olivia, Daniel, Myla’s paternal grandfather) suffer with the disorder to some extent.  Treatments have varied over time but the author suggests that the “cure” may sometimes be worse than the illness.  Olivia comments, “What if all the transcendent moments of your life, the sound-track moments, the radiant detail, the gleaming thing at the center of life that loves you, that loves beauty – God or whatever you call it – what if all this were part of your illness?  Would you seek treatment?  I have, and sometimes I wonder if the greatest passions are just out of my reach.  And sometimes I am so grateful” (268 – 269).

A problem I had with the book is Olivia.  I found it difficult to like her; she seems to be emotionally detached so it is difficult to feel any attachment to her.  For example, her reaction to her son’s going missing seems understated.  And she does illogical things.  For instance, when searching for her son, she decides to check out the Emerald Hotel because “The building calls out sadly, it invites me,” though she recognizes the choice to go there is “a strange decision” (44).  She eventually admits that she should have called the police immediately:  “One count of aggravated carelessness.  One count of poor mothering” (106).  Finding her son seems to take second place to her introspective journey. 

I know little about bipolar disorder.  Is sexual promiscuity a symptom of bipolar disorder?  Certainly Myla’s indiscretions and Olivia’s marital infidelities imply this.  Do those struggling with bipolar disorder tend to be selfish?  Again, Myla and Olivia seem to put their needs/desires before those of their children.  I will have to do some research. 

I also had some difficulty accepting Olivia’s great rebellion.  Though her upbringing was unconventional, she was very close to Myla:  “I measured each girl in my class against my mother and found none of them worth my time. . . . At three-twenty, I would flee the dull prison of the school day and pedal hard for home, where my mother waited with quiche hot from the oven and our evening’s adventure planned . . . [but then] the things I used to love [became] unbearable” (15).  The book jacket describes Olivia’s “sudden, full-throttle adolescence” and “rebellion so intense”; it is the suddenness and intensity that seem implausible.  I can understand a teenage wanting to have friends and to have a more normal life, but Olivia’s change is just too abrupt. 

Myla is equally annoying.  It is obvious that she loves Olivia and wants to protect her from the world, but why doesn’t she ever try honesty?  Surely when her illness is under control, she can think rationally and see that she must tell her daughter the truth instead of just leaving her child alone for days and weeks. 

A character suggests that Myla should be taking lithium, a mood stabilizer.  Olivia defends her mother’s choice not to take it:  “If a pill would make her better, it would also make her someone else.  That idea rankles:  She could have been steady all through my childhood – no disappearances, no spinouts, no weeks passed out on the sofa – and she chose to be otherwise.  She was selfish, though she would never see it that way.  But how much do we really choose these things? I think.  How can I blame her for her gift of sight?” (225). So Myla’s psychic abilities are the gift of untreated bipolar disorder?  Does that mean Olivia will hereafter refuse medication to her son who also has “his illness and his gifts” (275)?

And then there’s Christie who always “says nothing but grits her teeth . . . This is how her sister is.  She only has one sister (249).  (The former grammar teacher in me won’t let me not point out that “only” in this last sentence is a misplaced modifier.  The sentence should read, “She has only one sister,” not “She only has.”)  Carrie’s attitude towards her brother is understandable; she loves him though she resents him.  But the extent of Christie’s forgiveness and understanding is difficult to accept.

The plot is very predictable so there is little suspense.  Would any astute reader doubt that Daniel will be found?  Events are so carefully structured, one can see the writer’s plot outline; for instance, Daniel’s conversation on the beach with a stranger who invites him for a boat ride is clearly intended to suggest danger of kidnapping.  The “strange decision” to visit the Emerald Hotel is just an excuse for a 60-page flashback. 

This is a debut novel so perhaps I am being too harsh.  The style is quite lyrical, but for me poetic language does not sufficiently compensate for the novel’s weaknesses.