Review – Before I Die by Jenny Downham


Tessa has just a few months to live. Fighting back against hospital visits, endless tests, drugs with excruciating side-effects, Tessa compiles a list. It's her To Do Before I Die list. And number one is sex. Released from the constraints of 'normal' life, Tessa tastes new experiences to make her feel alive while her failing body struggles to keep up. Tessa's feelings, her relationships with her father and brother, her estranged mother, her best friend, her new boyfriend, all are painfully crystallized in the precious weeks before Tessa's time finally runs out.



The basic story behind Before I Die, is exactly what the title suggests. The main character, 16 year-old Tessa, has been living with terminal cancer for the past few years, but now she is at the point where she must either let the disease run it’s course or spend her last days undergoing painful treatments that may kill her just as easily as the cancer itself. Her final decision is to forego treatments and live the rest of her life with pride intact, fighting the killer inside on her own terms. Realizing how precious these days will be, she fully intends to make the most of it, doing all the things she wishes to, regardless of what others think. This is Tessa’s life, Tessa’s time and Tessa’s choice.

One of the first things that appealed to me, while reading this book was the family dynamics involved. Tessa’s parents divorced when she was a child and her father has been raising her and her younger brother. When she is first diagnosed with leukemia, her dad changes his work schedule in order to be home and available for his children. It seems as though he makes every attempt to keep their lives normal, and also he gives Tessa the freedom to actively decide on how they will handle her medical decisions. The mother, on the other hand, is a absentee parent who has not had any experience with Tessa’s condition, so when she makes a return during this last stretch it is very interesting to see how she reacts emotionally to just how serious this is. I found myself thinking that perhaps the mother created a distance between herself and Tessa in an act of subconscious self-denial, maybe by not witnessing the daily struggles she was protecting herself from thinking of her inevitable loss.

A character that deserves mention is Tessa’s younger brother Cal. When Cal is first introduced to the story, he comes off as a bratty little snot, making jokes about his Tessa dying and displaying a slight jealousy of the attention she receives. But further in, it becomes obvious that this is the way that Cal has been protecting himself, he loves his sister but doesn’t appear to possess the maturity needed to emotionally express these feelings. And Tessa, as a caring older sister, respects Cal and goes along with the teasing as a way of acknowledging that she understands his confusion.

During Tessa’s illness, she has spent alot of time in bed recuperating, and thinking. She thinks alot about the things that she may never get the chance to experience and as these things pop into her mind she begins scribbling them on the wall above her bed. This is what leads to her list of things to do before she dies. Things like sex, drugs, driving and many other normal things that teens do. Knowing she could never do these things on her own, she enlists the help of her best friend Zoey, an outgoing and daring girl. They manage to check off a few things, but Zoey, dealing with her own problems, begins to lose her zest and Tessa becomes the out-of-control part of the duo. There is much more to this friendship, but spoilers would be hard to avoid.

As Tessa experiences new things, she faces a realization that love is something she wants desperately to feel, but also knows that the pain it would involve is a feeling she is loathe to share with someone. However, life is never easy and sometimes love won’t take no for an answer. So with the boy next door, Adam, Tessa takes the first steps towards a real relationship. And though it seems unfair to both of them, they realize that sometimes the length of a relationship is not important but what you make of the time you have.

Before I Die is not the type of book I would generally read, there are so many stories out there about dying kids and the clichés are sometimes unavoidable. However, I am so happy that I did read this one, in fact, if you were to choose any book from this theme, I would highly recommend Before I Die as the best. For me the main enjoyment was the characters, relationships and family dynamic, but it was also beautifully written. Where some books may be overly sentimental and sappy, Before I Die was touching, emotionally powerful but real. And when reading YA fiction that deals with teens and serious issue, realism and authenticity are extremely important to me. Finding a story that is both natural and original is a tough search, but this book is perfect. 

About The Author
Jenny Downham trained as an actor and worked in alternative theatre before starting to write. Before I Die is her first novel. She lives in London.

Title: Before I Die
Author: Jenny Downham
Reading Level: Young Adult
Book Type: Hardcover 336 pgs.
Publisher: David Fickling Books
Publication Date: September 2007

Other Reviews:
Becky's Book Reviews
Bart's Bookshelf
Out Of The Blue

© 2008-2010 Joanne Mosher of The Book Zombie. All rights reserved.


bermudaonion said...

Those seems like topics that would be tough to tackle in a YA book - glad to see that author got it right.

grayskyeyes said...

Normally this sort of book doesn't really appeal to me, but your review of it is really excellent! If I come across it, I might just pick it up.

naida said...

this does sound like an intense read. its a difficult topic, I usually wouldnt read a book like this, but your review does make it sound very good.
great review.

Chris said...

Sounds like a tough read. Btw, I left you an award on my blog.

Dar said...

Great review Joanne. This books sounds very good-very emotional. I'll definitely keep an eye out for this one.

Everything Changes said...

I am the author of Everything Changes: The Insider's Guide To Cancer In Your 20's and 30's. In my book I tell the real life story of a 21 year old who is in a race against the clock to lose his virginity before his stem cell transplant. I'm glad to hear that Jenny Downham captured this real life conundrum in a way that avoided cliches and heavy handed emotionalism. It sounds like a good read.


Ladytink_534 said...

Books like this make me cry! They never fail to put me in a bit of a reading "funk" afterward.

Susan said...

excellent review! I just discovered you via Just a (Reading) Fool, and I've added you to my blogroll.

Nikole said...

This book is amazing, I would recommend it to everyone ! The main character Tessa see's everything in a different way and it leads you too to also look at things in a different way finding beauty in the simple things that you'd never see beauty in before ! It's also a big tear jerker !