Monday, January 11, 2010

Before I Die by Jenny Downham

On my trip back home after New Year’s, I spent a lot of time looking around the various airport bookshops, hoping to find something that would keep my mind engaged while my plane’s delay grew longer and longer (I had a book in my carry-on, of course, but I was restless for something new, and this was more exciting). This was one of the few YA novels that wasn’t about vampires or the supernatural, so I picked it up, knowing nothing about the title.

Tessa is a girl living in England in her mid-to-late teens (she’s around 16, I think). She’s been battling leukemia for years, but when the story opens, the doctors have done everything they can do. Realizing that she is going to die, she decides to fulfill her list of things that she wants to do while she’s alive – starting with losing her virginity. With the (sometime) help of her best friend, she tries to check off as much as she can – including breaking the law, trying drugs, learning to drive, and falling in love. Her next-door-neighbour-slash-crush is one of those boys that seemingly only exist in novels, and he has his own issues to deal with as his relationship with Tessa develops at the same time as her health deteriorates.

This is a hard book to read, both because of the subject matter and because the style follows Tessa’s insistence at pushing people away one minute and bringing them close the next, but I thought that the book’s real strengths were in Tessa’s relationships with people, particularly her brother, her parents, and the boy next door. Each relationship has its own tone and momentum, and Tessa's approach as deals with each person is specific to the person, adding to the book's realism. Tessa's best friend, Zoey, at times felt like she'd wandered in from being the heroine of her own YA novel (although I suppose that's also kind of like real life, where one person's own drama doesn't stop just because a friend is sick), and I didn't particularly like that character. The others felt slightly like less of a cliche (except for Adam, the neighbour, but at least I found him an enjoyable cliche), but it wasn't really the characters that were strong - it was the way they interacted with Tessa. A very, very hard book to read, but in the end I thought it was worth picking up in an airport bookstore.

Find it at Amazon.

Read it with:
Deadline by Chris Crutcher
If I Stay by Gayle Forman
10 Things to Do Before I Die by Daniel Ehrenhaft

I got this book: from my own collection.


  1. Deadline is one of my all time favorites, so I'll have to try this one. Great review.

  2. Intriguing. I like your reviews - they really show how you felt about a book. Like talking to a friend.

  3. Thank you, Melissa! I'm enjoying using the blog to get into a bit more about what I enjoyed about books; at work, doing booktalks and readers' advisory, I feel I have to be more diplomatic!

    I read Deadline first, Amy, awhile ago, and it has similar subject matter but a much different tone. It'd be interesting to really do read them side by side.

  4. This one was hard for me to read. We had recently lost a former student - just 19 years old - to colon cancer and I saw her when I read it. I thought the book was very touching and thought-provoking. I bet it made time pass more quickly in those airports. (Visiting via the Comment Challenge 2010)

  5. Like the review, and the list of other books. Deadline by Chris Crutcher sounds like one I need to get. Love Crutcher.

  6. I have a handful of YAs I've just brought home from the library, and as much as I love the genre, I think it's the most emotionally demanding/draining out there. While the story sounds compelling, I'm skipping this one.