What I Had Before I Had You

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

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.