Thoughts on Sarah Cornwell’s What I Had Before I Had You, Bruce Springsteen, and the Imperfect, Messy Magic of the Jersey Shore

Written by Sofia Sokolove

There’s something inherently literary about the Jersey Shore—we know this not from Snookie but from Bruce Springsteen, whose best songs are like beautifully succinct short stories. They capture the messy reality of a working class vacation town—the airy hopefulness of the sea juxtaposed with the longing for escape from the complications of family and life. Springsteen’s lyrics are like blue-collared poetry—the slamming of screen doors and radios playing…a chicken man being blown up.

One of my favorite Springsteen songs is “Thunder Road,” in which he coaxes “Mary” off her porch with a harmonica and killer lyrics like “You ain’t a beauty, but hey you’re alright.”

“Show a little faith,” he tells her, “there’s magic in the night.”

It’s a palpable and imperfect kind of magic in “Thunder Road”—dresses swaying in the heat, Roy Orbison on the radio, and a sense that the “one last chance to make it real” he’s singing about probably won’t pan out. It is both fleeting and gripping at the same time, and it’s exactly this kind of magic that sinks into the spine and shines out from the pages of Sarah Cornwell’s debut novel, What I Had Before I Had You.

Switching back and forth between past and present, Cornwell skillfully navigates themes of mental illness, memories, and identity with carefully chosen prose. Dreamy, illustrative language and disorienting chronology creates a sense of illusion, where both the protagonist and the reader find themselves questioning what is real.

Two gripping, haunting narrative threads drive the novel, and while they exist in completely different time periods in protagonist Olivia Reed’s life, they are both set in her hometown of Ocean Vista, New Jersey, a place that, twenty years later, remains mostly unchanged. Pizza parlors are no longer “Sal’s but Al’s,” but “the fundamental structure of the streets and intersections has remained,” and the people, too, are unchanged:

“Feathery-haired women reaching out with fists full of sunscreen for their tomato-red, indifferent husbands; little girls running on cracked sidewalks with neon toenails and knotty hair; watchful men outside the bars. I suspect that these are, in fact, the same people I remember, eternally damned to haunt the coast of New Jersey.”

Olivia’s lurking past—growing up with her psychic, bipolar mother Myla and the summer she spent uncovering the truth about the spirits of her ghostly twin sisters—seamlessly slides and bumps into her present reality: recently separated, coping with her own bipolar disorder, and moving her two children from Austin to New York with a detour in Ocean Vista.

She’s hoping to give her children a sense of where she grew up, “as if sole custody means that I owe them more explanation, more background, more proof of myself,” she says. When Daniel, Olivia’s nine-year-old son who was recently diagnosed as bipolar disappears on the boardwalk in the fading summer twilight, Olivia begins a panicked, desperate search through a town—and a past—that still has an eerie, mystical hold on her. “Of course I would lose him here,” she says, “this is where I lose people.”

Almost immediately, Cornwell, with rich, dreamy sentences, allows the setting to do the work of bringing both Olivia and the reader back into Olivia’s past:

“That sound, tires on asphalt. The slack gum-chewing boy who pumped our last tank of gas. The white globes of dandelions in the tall grass. I can almost see myself, a wild, skinny kid, sepia-tinged, running alongside our car behind the guardrail through the untended highway scrub.”

Cornwell’s greatest gift as a writer may be her ability to capture the way our senses pull on our memories, and the backbone of this impressive first novel is the masterful way she uses language to not only craft a tangible setting, but to explore the significance of that setting on her characters and their relationships. 

What I Had Before I Had You is a story built on sense of place—it’s not only the visceral sense of physical place that pulls at Olivia, but everything else less tangible that comes with that—especially her sense of family, and identity within that family. Ocean Vista is a place she has distanced herself from that she still knows inherently—it pulls at her with a magnetic, strange quality in a way that feels very linked to how the familial and genetic ties pull across generations throughout the novel.

To smooth over the potential narrative awkwardness of jumping back and forth in time, Cornwell treats us to beautifully crafted transitions—ending a chapter in the present, Cornwell prepares her readers for an upcoming chapter set in the past: “Memory reaches for me with seaweed fingers, lifts me dripping out of the ocean, and sets me down on the seat of my old green bike to pedal back into that terrible summer, the last summer of my childhood.”

As we are brought back into that summer, Cornwell’s gift for descriptive, illustrious language shines, and the setting is painted not in literal terms, but in floating sentences that blur the grounded reality of the narrator—and of the reader. Olivia talks of “the heartbeat that fills the house,” and how things are alive in inventive ways—a ticket from the police given to her mother manages to evoke summertime imagery: “I imagine that her misdemeanor is the very same one I wiggled out of by jumping out the window at The Emerald that night; it has been hovering mosquito like, waiting for a reed, any reed, having gotten the taste of us.”

The weaving of the natural world with the mental—tying the ocean and mosquitoes and seaweed with the pull of memories and emotions gives Cornwell’s prose the slightest tinge of magical realism, or mysticism, at the very least. It’s appropriate for a novel that explores the mind and mental illness—the grandiose language and larger-than-life imagery adds another element to the questions Cornwell raises about how we understand and treat minds that are creatively superior yet struggle with stability—or at least our definition of stability. It also asks us as readers to question—in the realm of memory, emotion, and personal narratives—how do we define what is real? Is the literal truth always the best representation of someone’s experienced truth? Cornwell has a way of capturing the experience of her characters’ truths over the literal truth, and it’s incredibly powerful.

Another Springsteen favorite of mine is a slow, piercingly good song called “The River.” By the river the fields are green—him and Mary (yes, her again,) met when she was just seventeen, and “they’d go down to the river, and into the river they’d dive.” But then he gets Mary pregnant, “and man that was all she wrote.” Now time has passed, and he sings of the ways the river haunts him:

“Now those memories come back to haunt me/they haunt me like a curse. Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true? Or is it something worse/that sends me down to the river/though I know the river is dry. That sends me down to the river tonight. Down to the river/my baby and I. Oh down to the river we ride…”

Springsteen, like Cornwell, understands the messy entanglement of place, memory, and relationships amidst the Jersey coastline.

What I Had Before I Had You is difficult to categorize—it’s both a psychological thriller and a coming-of-age novel with a double narrative. It’s cohesiveness comes from the constant, alive setting of Ocean Vista, New Jersey pulsing through the novel—a beach town that’s far more complicated than the iconic image of barefoot teenagers and innocent ice cream parlors, yet still holds the pull of the sea and the hope of escape.