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What Came Before Paperback – July 18, 2014

4.8 out of 5 stars 41 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


What Came Before is a remarkable achievement--a smart, fast-paced mystery that asks important questions about identity, family, and race. And, like the best of its genre, it's loaded with puzzles: What really happened on the day Abbie Palmer's mother killed herself? Who is the mysterious woman who shows up on Abbie's doorstep, and why would anyone want her dead? Gay Degani's prose is at all times lucid and compelling, and her exciting story will keep you glued to your chair.   ~ Clifford Garstang, What the Zhang Boys Know, winner of the 2013 Library of Virginia Award for Fiction.

This novel is an unraveling narrative of red herrings and second guesses, with twists and turns of plotline that keep you turning the pages. What Came Before is a detective story that is both engaging and enthralling, populated by vivid characters portrayed with a deft and precise prose. -Literary Fiction Book Review

Degani's affable debut, a suspenseful novel about mothers and daughters, aims to be thrilling, socially relevant and heartwarming all at once.  --Kirkus Review

From the Author

What Came Before was conceived as a comedy with lots of broad humor and exaggerated characters, but as I began to work, I realized I needed to write something I cared about, that there had to be a reason beyond car chases and Twinkies for a piece of work to exist. I rethought the whole thing. Stories--good stories--had to be about something that mattered to me and to others.
In the beginning, Abbie's missing half-sister was white, like Abbie and like me, and I kept coming up with the question, "so what?" "Where's the tension?" I reached into my own life, my own experiences, my own childhood for clues. 
I grew up in California, but my mom came from a little town in Louisiana and my dad from Iowa.  Since he was a teacher, we used to climb into our old Pontiac as soon as school was out and head east to corn country, then head south to Terrebonne parish.  That's where I ran smack dab into Jim Crow laws.
I loved going to the grocery store with my grandpa.  He was a sunburned Santa Claus smelling of figs and cigars who liked to load up on rolls and rolls of toilet paper, paper towels, cans of tomato sauce and bottles of soda pop.  I liked to ride on the front of the cart while he pushed down the aisles. Then when I was four or five - I don't really remember exactly - I wandered off to get a drink of water.
Two drinking fountains stood against the cluttered back wall of the market. I studied them, wondering which one I wanted. I'd never had a choice before.  Not in California. 
The left one was labeled "white" and the other labeled "colored."  

I chose "colored," of course, because to my mind that meant the water would come out red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple. When no rainbow showed up, I was disappointed. I turned on the white one. The two sprays of water were exactly the same. Clear and boring.

I ran back to my grandpa and told him what happened. He explained that one was for white people, the other for black. When I asked why, he just shrugged. I don't remember, but I think it was my father who to me this kind of fear and hatred existed in the world.
I wish I could say I knew instinctively at that young age the whole wrongness of it, but I didn't. It's something I learned as I grew into myself, through reading, through the experiences of the growing up in the fifties and sixties, through knowing people of many races - the different ways human beings exist in a real world. "What Came Before" springs from a desire to show that people are more alike than different, and it is our differences that enrich us.  --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 252 pages
  • Publisher: Every Day Novels (July 18, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1928193005
  • ISBN-13: 978-1928193005
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,021,151 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Abbie Palmer is at a crossroads in her life. Feeling overwhelmed by 25 years of marriage and family obligations, she's just taken her first tentative step toward independence, hoping to "find her creative self," when a woman appears on her doorstep insisting she's her half-sister. It's an impossible claim--isn't it? After all, the woman is black, whereas Abbie is white. Abbie has spent a lifetime fending off strangers with questions about her deceased, movie-star mother, and has no desire to speak to this woman. However, unable to stifle her curiosity, Abbie goes in search of this mysterious visitor the next day--only to discover that she's just died, unquestionably the result of foul play. What follows is a gripping story that forces Abbie to come out of her shell and embark on a journey in which she'll confront her greatest fears, a journey that will ultimately uncover the truth about a secret love story that rocks Abbie to her core, as she comes to finally understand, accept, and believe in herself.

I really enjoyed this novel. You will embrace Abbie as a slightly flawed but sympathetic, smart, resourceful, and relatable heroine. All the characters felt very real--they are still rattling around in my head. The writing is top-notch, and the plot is clever, suspenseful, and page-turning. I looked forward to reading it every night, and didn't want to stop. I hope the author writes a sequel to this book. It's great fun to have an English teacher as a detective, and I'd love to see what happens to Abbie in the future.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Gay Degani, in "What Came Before", does not mince words. She, in fact, knows words with that investigational flair that gives us a challenge to submit to and a page-turning joy to allow us to move along with. From the start of this exceptional contemporary novel, Degani digs deeply into scenes with modern characters that jump out at you as exciting, innovative, penetrating characters. This is a fictional mystery novel that lends to immediacy and chilling pursuance.

The personal narrative in the first person winds a journey that is unique and eye-opening. In one sense, Degani's known knowledge of the Afro-American nature in a White world proves to be the up-side of the book with black and white characters in search of a mystery with a psychological study that holds true uncommon angles. A book for the times written about the Tikki Palms, a fictional spot in sunny southern California.

At times, this novel is heart-pounding. Until the final chapters it is a page-turner, a real mini-thriller, watching Abbie Palmer discover herself and her past with a young woman named MacKenna who will steal your heart. It comes to light that this novel does not have that sometimes confusing, quixotic sense of too-moral aptitude and therefore gives us a straightforward slap-in-the-face style.

I love the storyline. It's jus that simple if you want to tag its popular knowledge of "cool" scenes and unusual circumstances. Without giving away the movement of what takes place, I'd like to comment on the relentless search for the key to a dead mother. Something others have done before. But in this case, flawless, like panning for gold and finding it. Degani knows how to build a plot well. The end is electrifying and somewhat spine-tinglingly ironic.

What a good read I had! Done in a fast clip of two sittings I liked the quick chapters and the culminating ending. Good job!
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Format: Hardcover
Gay Degani’s debut novel is a force of nature. The author has been honing her craft by writing flash fiction for a few years. She is a master at getting quickly inside the head of a character and taking us on a journey we won’t soon forget. What Came Before is just such a journey.

Abbie Palmer has a husband, grown children, and a comfortable life in the suburbs, but there’s something missing. Maybe it’s her age. She’s reached the time in her life when she is wondering if maybe she lost herself along the way. She rents a small apartment where she can paint and write and look for the Abbie Palmer who might exist out there.

Then comes the knock on the door. A nicely dressed woman tells her, “My mother is your mother.” Abbie tells the lady to get lost. But the woman leaves a note in the door with her number on it and Abbie tracks her down. The neighborhood is overrun with fire engines and police. A house had been fire bombed. The address is that of the woman who claims to have the same mother. The woman is dead. And the woman was African-American.

Now Abbie has a choice: Forget the entire thing or see what story Olita Jordon had to tell. Abbie has to piece it together sliver by sliver, but the fact her mother, a former actress who killed herself when Abbie was four, has haunted Abbie all her life makes this a journey worth taking. Maybe now she will learn who her mother really was and maybe Abbie will find herself along the way.

The journey uncovers many truths. For one, Olita Jordon has a daughter, a troubled daughter… much like Abbie was as she grew to adulthood. But by opening herself up to this young woman, Abbie opens herself up to whoever killed Olita, because there is a murder here.

But even with the danger, Abbie is on this quest to find the truth. The story is told beautifully and painfully from Abbie’s perspective and lets us see how what came before can impact ones life.

Magnificently written.
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