Before I Die by Jenny Downham


Knowing approximately when you’ll die, and that the event is imminent, lends a certain urgency to your bucket list. Tessa is in just that position: she’s been battling leukemia for four years, and the doctors have now told her that there is nothing more they can do. No new treatments, only palliative care to make her last weeks more comfortable.

She writes up a list of all the things she wants to do before she dies–sex, a day in which she must do whatever anyone asks of her, theft, drugs, become famous and more–and sets to working on them. This doesn’t always work out as well as she’d hoped. She’s nearly arrested for shoplifting. The day of saying “yes” to all requests lands her literally in the drink, when Zoe asks her to wade out into the river; soddenly climbing back onto shore, Tessa receives some little disapprobation from the “sensible” onlookers who can’t understand why she’d do something so asinine.

Her family and friends aren’t always as sweetly supportive as they are in so many after-school specials. Her father vacillates between sympathetic support and losing his temper with her foolish thoughtless behavior, though in the end he does help with some of the items on her bucket list, taking her to a local radio station for an interview about what it’s like for her as a teen to live with terminal cancer. Her little brother “helpfully” tells her about the decomposition process and asks, near the end of the book, if their parents will take him on a nice vacation after Tessa dies, and they no longer have the expense of her medical care. Zoe begins the book enthusiastic about Tessa’s project, but veers off into the morass of her own problems, culminating with a pregnancy that she decides to keep despite pressure to have a ‘termination’, as the British euphemism goes.

The book ends, as it inevitably does, with Tessa’s death…and make sure you’ve got plenty of tissues if you’ve enjoyed, for certain values of “enjoy”, the book thus far.

Oddly, unlike some of the reviewers on GoodReads, I actually rather appreciated Tessa’s abrasive, heedless, headlong flight through her bucket list. Being within months or even weeks of one’s own death does not automatically confer a saintly nature; indeed, having been through all those ghastly cancer treatments (and some of the side effects are miserable!) only to find that the entire fight was futile would be enough to make saints grumpy. Staring your own death in the “face” similarly does not grant angelic maturity; I’d be flailing around myself in fury and Tessa’s outbursts of anger are reasonable indeed. Even Zoe’s withdrawal from her friend as Tessa struggles is at least partially understandable, given her own personal issues as the book goes on. There’s something to be said for a book with a mildly unlikable heroine and pissy sidekick which can still make me cry at the inevitable ending.

Ultimately, it is a first novel, and one for teens at that. Not that teens don’t deserve brilliant writing as much as adults, but books intended for middle- and high-school students are usually shorter and simpler than those intended for adults. That often results in books that skilled adult readers will find just a titch shallow.

What to read next? Try If I Stay. Though the reason for the central characters’ imminent death is different, they both touch on how people handle their own mortality.

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