Downham, Jenny. 2007. Before I Die.
There are no surprises in Before I Die. What do I mean? Well, if you're expecting a happy ending with a miracle cure, you'll be disappointed. Our heroine, our narrator, is dying throughout the book, and does in fact die. Some people are drawn to these types of sad, tragic, heart-breaking dramas. Some authors are known for it, specialize in weepy women as their main audience. While Before I Die is sad, it is so much more than just another sad book. Our narrator, Tessa, is sixteen and dying. That is sad in and of itself. But Tessa's problem is that she doesn't want to die before she has a chance to live. If she's going to die, she's going to make the most of every single moment. She doesn't want to waste her time with trivialities. No school for her. No obeying her parents' rules. No obeying anybody's rules. She wants to experience it all--sex, drugs, alcohol, shoplifting, love, happiness. She wants to feel it all, live it all. She wants to pack a whole lifetime of experience into the few months she has left.
This is a drama or melodrama about life, family, friends, and love. Her relationships aren't easy. Dying isn't a piece of cake. It's hard for her to get along with her mother, her father, her brother, her best friend, her boyfriend. Life is full of ups and downs that goes for everyone--Tessa's dramas are magnified even more by the fact that her time is limited. So normal teen angst can be a bit more angsty and intense.
The writing is good. While this book may or may not be your kind of book--it might be an acquired taste to dwell on death and dying and leaving everyone you love behind--I want you to be aware of it at least. To know that there is a book out there that while emotionally manipulative--it has to be--is quite good. There was a time that I could almost weep on command at any sad story, any sad movie, any sad song. And while that still happens sometimes--I won't lie--I like to think that I've matured some. I was doing so well with this one, but even my heart wasn't made of stone at the very end.
As a teen, my experiences with death (with losing a loved one) were practically nonexistent. However, as an adult, I've lost a grandmother to congestive heart failure and diabetes, and a grandfather to cancer. (My other grandfather died of cancer a year before I was born.) And I've lost another person whom I was extremely close to to cancer. (Imagine getting the diagnosis the week or so before Thanksgiving, and then dying the first week of December.) The past six or seven years have been rough for me. Cancer is a scary word. A life-changing word. One that strikes fear in me. I've seen it up, close, and personal. It is ugly. It is scarring. It is terrifying. So reading about a girl with cancer, watching her die, even though the circumstances are so far removed from watching a grandparent die...some truths are universal no matter the age. So when it came time for Tessa's death scene, her surrounded by family, it was all too real for me. The sights. The sounds. Everything. Because I have lived the death bed scene--with my grandmother--this one was frighteningly real. I don't know if there are enough words to describe what it is like to watch someone you love die. The pain, the shock, everything. It's just too much too soon. You don't want them to suffer. You know it's coming. But to watch them gasp for breath, to hear the gasps for breath, to hear the gurgling noises, well, this scene got to me. The death bed scene was hard to read because it was so authentic. I don't know if all readers will pick up on just how authentic it is. To sit there and watch someone you love die. To see someone you love unconscious, and not really knowing if they can hear you, if they can feel you loving them, supporting them, letting them go. Of not knowing how to say goodbye but knowing that this is your only chance.
I didn't love every minute of this one. I couldn't. Tessa wasn't always likable. She wasn't always pleasant to be around. Tessa's vision of how to spend her last months and weeks wouldn't mesh with my vision of how I'd spend my last days. Her priorities aren't mine. Her choices, her views are far removed from mine. But Tessa's story is moving just the same.
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