Book Review: Before I Die by Jenny Downham

Publisher: David Fickling Books

Published: 29th April 2010

Format: Paperback

Pages: 336

Genre: Contemporary,  YA

Recommended Reading Age: 14+

Rating: 6.5/10

Amazon/Goodreads

Tessa has just 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, and her new boyfriend, all are painfully crystallised in the precious weeks before Tessa’s time finally runs out.

I almost feel like it’s wrong to say I didn’t really like this book, or to admit that I simply didn’t care for the main character. Tessa is sixteen and her cancer treatments have finally stopped working. She’s dying. And she isn’t handling it all that well.

Tessa is, understandably, an incredibly angry character. To be honest, she often acts like a spoilt little cow, is cruel to her father, mean to her little brother and rude to her only friend (who is just as hateful back to her). Tessa pushes everyone away, disappears time and time again, worrying everyone sick and does incredibly stupid and dangerous things in an effort to experience ‘life’ while she can. She takes drugs, drives down a dual carriageway in her father’s car without the slightest idea what she’s doing, endangering not only Kelly who is in the car with her, but anyone else on the road, shoplifts and goes home with a random stranger for sex.

Tessa is very self-destructive for a lot of the book, and I get it. I do. Before I Die upset me and made me cry because the thought of being told at 23, let alone 16, that you have only months left is just terrifying. Its cruel and it’s unfair. I’d want to rage against the world too. And Tessa never quite tips over into being so hateful and bitchy that I couldn’t stand her, but when she wasn’t being self-centered and making stupid choices I did find her a little nondescript. Aside from the awfulness of her illness, nothing really endeared her to me or made me love her as a character and I think that’s one of the main reasons why Before I Die wasn’t the poignant, moving book I was expecting.

The one character in the book that I really felt for was Tessa’s father. His daughter is dying, has been dying for four years now. He’s had to cope with that alone. If there was one aspect of Before I Die that really did affect me, it was watching him push his own grief to one side as he struggles to be there for Tessa as comes to terms with her own death, helping her face her final months, while equally being there for his young son and putting up with all the crap, anger and frustration that Tessa takes out on him. His devastation is evident, but never more so in the scene where he comes home to find Tessa has, in a fit of rage, destroyed everything in her room, unthinkingly leaving him with nothing of hers once she has gone.

I can’t say I found Before I Die life-affirming, uplifting or profound. It is sad, upsetting, brave and certainly made me look at my own life, but it was also, dare I say it, a little cliché, not to mention rather predictable. Tessa’s romance with Adam didn’t work for me and I felt Kelly’s story lacked subtlety. Before I Die was simply at it’s strongest when it dealt with the family’s relationships and their grief.

When it came down to it, I felt like I had read it all before. My Sister’s Keeper, for example, essentially deals with a similar story line, a young girl dying of cancer and how she and her family cope with normal family life alongside years of treatment and decline. That being said, a lot of people have loved this book and found it very moving, so I it’s certainly worth a read. Before I Die missed the mark for me, it was a bit too melancholy and lacked the much-needed lighter moments to give the story some balance. A similar book that I feel captures the fragility and beauty of live and love in the last few days of a young girl’s life is Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver. I would recommend Downham’s other novel You Against Me, which I loved.

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