Pre review disclaimer: This book was recommended to me by “Amy” with the caveat that she’d heard it was excruciatingly sad and she knew readers who actually cried when they were talking about it. My morbid curiosity peaked, I decided to give the book a go after making provisions (though not really enough) for after-sad-book-reading with some funny books. Even with that buffer, I found myself feeling deeply melancholy while reading almost the entire second half of the novel. I don’t really know what to say about this book because while it was good, it’s just not my style to recommend sad books to people. So, I guess just read the review and if your interest is also peaked, give it a go. Just keep my little warnings in mind. So, if I haven’t scared all of my readers off by now, onward to the review:
Before I Die (2007: David Fickling Books) is Jenny Downham‘s first novel (she trained as an actor and worked in alternative theater before writing according to her back flap bio). It is simultaneously life affirming and tragic.
Tessa Scott was diagnosed with cancer when she was twelve. Now sixteen, Tess is facing the unfathomable : her own death, much too soon and far too fast.
When the novel opens, Tess is in the midst of a self-imposed exile in her bedroom as she contemplates what dying really means when you haven’t had much time to live and when your family tries to keep you optimistic and your best friend insists on acting like she understands.
But she can’t. How can she possibly, when she has her whole life left? I hide under my hat again, just for a bit, because I’m going to miss breathing. And talking. And windows. I’m going to miss cake. And fish. I like fish. I like their little mouths going, open, shut, open.
And where I’m going, you can’t take anything with you.
Then an idea forms. Tess has a list, ten things to do before she dies. Given the choice between dying quietly and taking this one last chance to live, Tess decides to go for it–asking her best friend Zoey to help her do it all.
The list starts with sex. When things don’t go the way she had thought and she doesn’t feel the way she had hoped, Tess considers giving up on the list altogether until she receives a new diagnosis.
How long can I stave it off? I don’t know. All I know is that I have two choices–stay wrapped in blankets and get on with dying, or get the list back together and get on with living.
So that’s exactly what Tess does. The items on the list range from the whimsical, like saying yes to everything for a day, to the poignant, like fame. The novel follows Tess as she completes the items on her list with varying levels of success and then through, literally, to the end.
Before I Die also spends a lot of time looking at Tessa’s relationships with her family and her friends. It’s interesting to see how her father and younger brother interact with Tess as well as how her absent mother tries to fit into the picture.
Tessa’s friend Zoey, however, probably gets more page time than the family. Dealing with her own problems in the story, Zoey offers an interesting foil to Tess’ situation. At the same time, their friendship provides the rather sobering reminder that, when someone is dying, it doesn’t mean everyone else’s lives can stop.
To borrow an old cliche, it’s the relationship between Tess and her neighbor Adam that really pulls at a reader’s heartstrings. As Tess and Adam try to connect, first as friends and then as something more, it’s kind of heartbreaking to realize they can’t always be together.
A lot of recently published novels are written in the present tense. That conceit is particularly appropriate in Before I Die since Tess can truly only live in the present. As I mentioned before, this novel doesn’t end happily. But that doesn’t make it less brilliant. Downham handles Tessa’s death, narrated like the rest of the book in Tessa’s voice, in a truly original way. I don’t know that this book would be something to give someone who is already depressed over a death, but it does offer an interesting perspective on loss from a radically new perspective.
Possible Pairings: If I Stay by Gayle Forman, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott, How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford