It is rewarding as a reader to encounter a unique story, and Jenny Downham's Before I Die is one such find. Downham has constructed a teen novel that is neither overly sweet nor patronizing—instead, Before I Die offers a candid and piercing view of the way a teenager's mind works.
Tessa, a 16-year-old battling cancer, makes a list of the things she wants to experience before her life ends: Sex, drugs and love are all on the agenda. There is no surprise happy ending here, but the journey of the novel itself is emotionally surprising. Tessa is sarcastic, rude and bitter—all that we expect a teenager to be—yet as the novel progresses, her anger at her failing health evolves into an appreciation of the smaller joys life presents. She notices the way the sunlight looks in her tea, appreciates the taste of kiwi and hears someone moving dishes in the kitchen. Downham's prose is poetic, and her images are vivid. The reader sees Tessa, hears her breathe, experiences her first love and holds her hand as her body gives up.
The most remarkable relationship in the novel is that of Tessa and her next-door neighbor, Adam. Though the romantic relationship is initiated and determined by the strong-willed narrator, it is an extraordinary pairing. Adam is patient with Tessa's fluctuating consciousness toward the end, and he remains by her side throughout night sweats, hospital stays and final moments. Their hearts seem to have known one another for an impossibly long time, and it is this blending of the soul—where the edges of each individual are indecipherable—that is the most devastating aspect of Tessa's demise.
This is an exceptional story, one that will bring tears to the eyes of adults as well as younger readers. The novel moves relentlessly toward the brink and develops a set of unforgettable characters. I am pleased to have known Tessa—as I feel that I have—and I am carrying her with me.
Katie Lewis is a student at Saint Louis University. Copyright 2007 BookPage Reviews.
Horn Book Magazine Reviews 2007 #6
Downham's impressive first novel is a searingly intimate portrait of a sixteen-year-old facing imminent death. When the treatments for her advanced leukemia stop working, Tessa makes a list of things she wants to do in the time she has left. Her brash best friend Zoey helps her with the illicit items (driving without a license; getting high): after all, Zoey says, "there are no consequences for someone like you." First on the list is sex, and first-time sex with a stranger is, unsurprisingly, horrible, but pursuing the list makes Tessa feel alive, regardless of the outcomes. Amazingly, Tessa's number eight is realized as she falls in love with sweet, awkward Adam; this time, sex is tender and warm. Downham deftly builds Tessa's rich characterization through her shifting emotions. She grieves for the things she'll miss, rages that Adam and Zoey have full lives ahead without her, yet thrills at the moments she has right now -- riding on Adam's motorcycle, smelling the sea, tasting a kiwi. Far from sentimental, the novel doesn't shirk the raw physicality of Tessa's illness but shares the painful tests and transfusions, the weight loss and thinning skin, the nausea and aching bones. Tessa's body lets her down before she gets all her wishes, but she continues to make her own choices to the end. Downham's imagining of these last days and hours feels intensely real; the pages are ripe with love and loss as Tessa slips in and out of consciousness, her family and boyfriend by her side. This memorable novel is a clear directive to live one's life fiercely and fully, whatever the duration. Copyright 2007 Horn Book Magazine Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2007 September #1
With only months left to live, 16-year-old Tessa makes a list of things she must experience: sex, petty crime, fame, drugs and true love. Downham's wrenching work features a girl desperate for a few thrilling moments before leukemia takes her away. Although Tessa remains ardently committed to her list, both she and the reader find comfort in the quiet resonance of the natural world. Tessa's soul mate, Adam, gardens next door; a bird benignly rots in grass; psychedelic mushrooms provide escape; an apple tree brings comfort; and her best friend, Zoey, ripens in the final months of pregnancy. Downham's lithe, facile writing creates a chiaroscuro of life and death, of organic growth and decay. Although Tessa begins to see herself within the natural continuum, she still feels furious with her lot. She lashes out and behaves cruelly at times, making her believable to teen readers. Because her experience feels so palpable, readers will believe that the novel's final pages might offer a crystalline vision of death. Lucid language makes a painful journey bearable, beautiful and transcendent. (Fiction. YA)First printing of 100,000 Copyright Kirkus 2007 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2007 August #1
The eloquent dying teen can seem a staple of the YA novel, but this British debut completely breaks the mold.Downham holds nothing back in her wrenching and exceptionally vibrant story about a 16-year-old girl with leukemia determined to do 10 things before her imminent death (have sex, commit a crime, fall in love); although her rage feels palpable, she has decided to spend her remaining time living instead of dying. The chronicling of Tessa's slow decline has the immediacy of an audio journal--painful, honest first-person descriptions almost trap the audience inside Tessa's head. She alternates erratically but realistically between emotions, and the effect is staggering. One scene, for example, begins with Tessa's younger brother burying a dead bird, the boy next door helping him in an effort to impress Tessa: at first Tessa is touched, then "There's earth on my head. I'm cold.... I try and focus on good things, but it's so hard to scramble out." Although the internal monologues wield undeniable power, some of the most dramatic scenes in the book involve Tessa's friends and familyher father's efforts to remain strong despite grief; her boyfriend's love for her; her younger brother's inability to grasp the gravity of his sister's condition (after a fight he hisses, "I hope you die while I'm at school! And I hope it bloody hurts"). Downham's writing is shockingly straightforward, and she cushions nothing for readers. In laying out so bald a story she evokes an extraordinary range of emotions, exorcised in a fiercely cathartic ending. Ages 14-up. (Sept.)[Page 190]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Gr 9 Up --While other 16-year-olds are thinking about getting their driver's license or who will ask them to the school dance, terminally ill Tessa is busy making a list of 10 things she wants to do before she dies. As Tessa begins to tackle her list, she learns a great deal about those around her and even more about who she is and what she wants from the life she has left. The issue of dealing with a serious illness and how it affects everyone involved, from family and friends to visiting nurses, is deftly handled and rings true. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the story does not feel as authentic, including the romance between Tessa and her neighbor, Adam, which does not begin evolving until more than halfway through the book and seems like an unnecessary afterthought. On top of that, the author piles on a teen pregnancy (Tessa's best friend) and Adam's mother's depression. The manipulation of readers' emotions is obvious as the author goes from one sobbing moment to the next, but fans of Lurlene McDaniel's books are sure to overlook these flaws.--Shari Fesko, Southfield Public Library, MI[Page 120]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.