Thursday, January 23, 2014

"What I Had Before I Had You"

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, Cornwell has worked as an investigator of police misconduct, an MCAT tutor, a psychological research interviewer, and a toy seller.

She applied the Page 69 Test to What I Had Before I Had You, her debut novel, and reported the following:
In my childhood, there were always animals: stinky lovelorn dogs and pregnant cats to birth in our laundry room and broken-legged mice that we kept in shoe boxes full of moss. I never had a stuffed animal, because my mother thought that real ones deserved our care. They were free to come and go, and not a few of them ended up as grease on the parkway, cats especially. We buried front halves and back halves of things so many times that I learned to love generally and with measure. The animals were not allowed in the nursery. That rule was strict. After all, reasoned my mother, cats have been known to smother infants, and even the sweetest dog, when provoked, will bite.

For a few years when I was very young, we had an old parrot called the Admiral who spouted nautical phrases like "Thar she blows" and "Come about," sending us into bellyaching fits of laughter. My mother inherited the Admiral at the death of a client, his secret nautical enthusiasms outed by his bird. The Admiral ate Cheerios from my bowl and rode on my shoulder, to the oohing and ahhing of the neighbor kids. When he flew off, I waited days and days in hopes that he would come back, that he loved me more than he loved the endless sky. When it was finally clear that he was gone forever, I wailed for hours, and my mother held me on her lap and stroked my hot face with her fingers and told me that the only sure thing was her and me, and the rest of the world could do you wrong, and this was how it felt.
In this little slice of book, we get Olivia's nostalgic voice and a glimpse of her childhood relationship with her mother, Myla. In this anecdote as in the book as a whole, Myla governs her daughter's life with her own unique logic. She is unconventional, fun, and loving, but also deeply emotionally manipulative--in this recollection of Olivia's, Myla is using the common childhood experience of losing a pet to drive home her own point about the untrustworthiness of other people, and to confirm herself as the center of her daughter's world.

This excerpt also references the nursery, where Myla keeps cribs and supplies, though Olivia's sisters were stillborn many years before. Myla believes the twins persist as infant ghosts, and though Olivia can't see them, she never questioned her mother's claims until the turbulent summer of 1987, as presented in the book--the summer when Olivia grows out of that childhood trust and starts asking the questions that will lead her to revelations about her family and about herself.

This excerpt is mildly misleading in that it is told in the past tense; most of the book is in the continuous present tense--both Olivia's experience as a fifteen year old in 1987 and the present-day parallel narrative, in which adult Olivia searches for her lost nine year old son, Daniel, in the town where she grew up. Daniel has recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a family diagnosis shared by Olivia and Myla, and Olivia must revisit her difficult relationship with her mother in order to figure out how to be a mother, now, to Daniel, as he launches into the same passions and struggles that come with that complex mood disorder.
Learn more about the book and author at Sarah Cornwell's website.

--Marshal Zeringue