Today’s books are about family, relationships, secrets, and coming-of-age. Both move back and forth in time, and include characters suffering from mental illness.
Sarah Cornwell‘s debut novel, What I Had Before I Had You follows a mother’s memories back into her own turbulent adolescence. The thread that connects past and present is bipolar disorder, which runs in Olivia’s family. Olivia’s mother, Olivia’s 9-year-old son, even Olivia herself, all experience it. The novel includes compelling elements of mystery, of finding oneself, of navigating complicated relationships — all popular with readers of realistic fiction.
Rachel Joyce follows her own popular debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry with Perfect, which she considers “a story about truth as well as perfection.” The story alternates between 11-year-old Byron, in 1972, and 50-something Jim, who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder in the present. It hinges on a car accident that unravels Byron’s perfect family. Two mysteries — what happened during the car accident, and just how the past and present stories connect — propel the novel forward. Eleanor Brown’s Washington Post review points up its themes of social class, gender roles, mental illness, and “our search for perfection and control in an imperfect and uncontrollable world.”
CORNWELL, Sarah. What I Had Before I Had You. 288p. Harper. Jan. 2014. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9780062237842; ebk. ISBN 9780062237866.
In this engrossing debut novel, Olivia, recently separated, returns to the Jersey Shore town of her youth with her teenaged daughter and nine-year-old son. When her son, recently diagnosed with early-onset bipolar disorder, disappears, she spends the night looking for him. As she visits the haunts of her past, she recalls her teenage years in this place. Her mother often disappeared for days or weeks at a time, and she maintained a room in the house for Olivia’s twin sisters, who died at birth. The summer Olivia was 15, she saw two girls on the beach that she was certain were her sisters. Her attempt to find out who they were took her eventually to New York, and to finding out things about her family that turned her life around. The greater part of this novel is the story of Olivia as a teenager, and it is an absorbing coming-of-age story, as Olivia learns truths about parents and children, friends and lovers, honesty and lies, guilt, and forgiveness. Teens will be intrigued by her attempts to find out who she is, both at home on the shore, and in the wider world of New York. Her relationships with her mother, her mother’s boyfriend, her sisters, her own friends and boyfriends, and–in the present-day–her husband and children, are complex, and while Olivia’s life is often turbulent, it is always interesting.–Sarah Flowers, formerly of Santa Clara County Library, CA
JOYCE, Rachel. Perfect. 400p. Random. Jan. 2014. Tr $25. ISBN 9780812993301; ebk. ISBN 9780679645122.
Eleven-year-old Byron’s life is forever impacted when his mother is involved in a minor car accident. Accidents don’t happen in his world—his mother is perfect, their home is immaculate, and his father’s gift to his mother (a Jaguar) is untouched. Byron’s friend James now wishes he had never shared the news article about scientists adding two seconds to the year, because Byron blames the accident on the extra time. The two boys concoct a plan to investigate the accident while Byron’s mother is unraveling. In a parallel tale, readers meet Jim, an adult with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. Is he the grown-up version of James? The mystery isn’t solved until the end of the novel. While not a fast-moving read, Joyce’s second novel will attract teens who enjoy lush and slowly revealed family traumas. Much of this literary novel revolves around mental illness and how patients were treated in society and at home in the early 1970s and in contemporary society. The alternating chapters are easy to distinguish—Byron’s story is in past tense and Jim’s tale is in present tense. Teens will be most interested in Byron’s coming-of-age story and how he deals with his mother, who is increasingly becoming more distant.–Sarah Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL