Saturday, December 29, 2007

Before I Die by Jenny Downham

This teen novel is described as joyous and uplifting. Instead, I would call it poignant or bittersweet.

Tessa, age 16 has been living with leukemia for the past four years. Now, she has run out of treatment choices save doubtful experimental procedures. She chooses not to undergo still more treatment, more suffering and instead she lives what time she has left to the fullest. She makes a list of things she wants to do before she dies. The list grows and shrinks as her desires change and her illness progresses. Top of her list are have sex, do something illegal, try (illegal) drugs, drive. Between bouts of rage in which she tries to destroy any sign that she ever lived, destroying pictures, her mementos and even tossing a TV through a window and bouts of depression that keeps her in bed for days at a time, Tessa sets out to accomplish each thing on her list. Her friend Zoey, and sometimes father and brother Cal each support her efforts even as she shoves them away - afraid to have feelings for them and then pulls them back - forgetting that they too have needs. Her mother, divorced from her father and not really a part of her life for many years even comes around to support Tessa. And, lonely back door neighbor Adam who helps her burn her possessions during one of her rages, perhaps falls in love with her, gives her a totally unexpected experience if sex with love, not just the mechanical process she had gone through to fulfill her wish list. Tessa seems to think she is entitled to shoplift, take her father's car joy riding and do any manner of wild things because she is ill. I question the message that might give to others - though they probably don't need a story to give them ideas such as these. Other books about dying teens seem to be carefully crafted to go through the classic stages of grief. This story seems more real to me even though the emotions take a back seat to Tessa's efforts to live fully before she dies.
JDW 12/29/07

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