Friday, October 1, 2010

Review: Before I Die by Jenny Downham

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 feel like a jerk for not giving this story more stars. I mean, it's a book about a sixteen year old girl trying to live life to the fullest before dying of cancer. I keep thinking only a heartless baby-eating monster would give this book less then four stars.

Well, I suppose I am that monster, minus the whole baby-eating thing.

It's not like the premise failed to pull at my heartstrings--as I read this book I genuinely felt for the girl. And it's not like the author went out of her way to manipulate her audience. This book never crosses the line into full on manipulation, though there are times I feel it comes close, but not enough to bother me.

My problem lies with the protagonist, Tessa.

Yeah, you read that right. I don't like the main character, a teenage girl dying of cancer.

Before you start throwing things let me explain. Like I said before, I felt for Tessa, because her situation is incredibly tragic, but, I'm sorry, she sucks. I know she's dying but that doesn't give her an excuse to manipulate everyone around her into doing what she wants them to do. Dying young isn't some "get out of jail free card" you can wave around when your actions have negative consequences that you'd rather not face.

Here's the deal: Tessa has a list of ten things she wants to do before she dies. Sounds good, right? Well, the majority of the things on the list are reckless or selfish or illegal or just plain stupid. Sometime a combination of all four. And you know what? That's not so bad, doesn't necessarily bother me. Teenagers do stupid, selfish and/or illegal stuff. Tessa wants to sow some wild oats before dying. I get it.

What bothers me is the fact that she believes the rules shouldn't apply to her because she is dying--she can do whatever she wants, damn the consequences.

What's worse, Tessa demands a lot from her friends and family. At times she asks them to do things that, even under the tragic circumstances, are too much to ask. When they seem reluctant to comply she tells them that whatever it is she's asking happens to be on her list. Most of the time these things were not on her list until, conveniently, they were. It's her manipulation that really gets to me. I hate that she resorts to manipulation to get whatever she wants.

At one point Tessa throws a monumental fit (I mean, off the charts huge) because she doesn't get what she wants when she wants it--to make love with her boyfriend. Don't get me wrong, I knew her her freak out had more to do with the fact that she's dying so young, before she's old enough to really do anything, be anyone, then anything else. But still, she took it a little too far, I think.

In the end I got the idea that she had a full grasp at what was truly important in life. But for me, Tessa's understanding came too late in the game. It happened so late, that I, heartless monster that I am, had already spent some time wondering when she was going to "just die already". Yes, this really did go through my mind, more then a few times, near the end of this book--if this weren't a total work of fiction, I'd be going to hell for that, I'm sure.

I know I'm a monster for not giving this book more stars, unfortunately I'm unable to give this book more then the two stars I've given it.

P.S. Because I'm unable to recommend Before I Die to anyone I'm going to go ahead and recommend Before I Fall, which is another YA book which deals with death and is, in my humble opinion, infinitely better then this book.

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