Wednesday, November 9, 2011

"Before I Die" ~ Jenny Downham

Before I Die

If you knew you only had a few months left to live, how would you spend them?  Would you wallow away the time feeling sorry for yourself or would you make a bucket list of all the things you still wanted to do and start checking them off?  For 16 year old Tessa, this is her reality and her time is running out thanks to the big "C".  Instead of giving up to death, she makes a "Before I Die" top 10 list of the things she wants to do before she's gone forever and with the help of her BFF Zoey, she might just get them all done, unless her Dad stops her.

I expected this to be an emotionally charged book but I had no idea it would be full of hilarious, romantic, bittersweet and heart wrenching moments too.  In order to accomplish the tasks on her list, several of which are illegal, Tessa will have to try to keep from getting caught not just by the law, but by her Dad as well. 

She writes her list on her bedroom wall and the #1 item on her list is "to feel the weight of a boy on top of me" otherwise known as sex.  In a perfect world, Tessa would be married or at least be in love with said boy and he with her but since she's currently single and time is not on her side, her options are limited. (Zoey wants to help her check that one off her list A.S.A.P. and begs the question, "What's love got to do with it?"  Me thinks Zoey's a Tina Turner fan).   Some of the other things Tessa hopes to do are drive a car (she has yet to take her driving test), travel, get drunk, do drugs, say "yes" to everything for an entire day (this one ends up costing her more than she expected), and being famous.  

Thankfully, Tessa is surrounded by people who love her, even if they have odd ways of expressing it. Zoey is the only friend who wasn't scared off by her cancer and her "tell it like it is" attitude has a strange way of anchoring Tessa to the present.  Together, they keep each other grounded especially when their worlds begin to spiral out of control.

Cal, Tessa's younger brother is always full of energy and his childlike honesty is refreshing and humorous.  He often asks says the things the others are thinking but are afraid to ask.  At one point he complains to Tessa that he'll be the only kid in class with a dead sister.  She tells him that's not so bad because all the girls will "fancy him then."  Tessa and Cal live with their Dad (Mum left when Tessa was 12) and while he may not be the model of single Dad perfection, he loves his kids and would give his life for them.  Dad's been the one constant in Tessa's life and he wants nothing more than to find a cure for her but when he stumbles across her list he's left feeling hurt and betrayed.  Mum decides to make a reappearance in Tessa's life, stirring up a flurry of emotions in everyone with some surprising results.

Adam, Tessa's new neighbor isn't scared off by her illness either, he shows interest in her list, even offering to help her and he makes a point of telling her that despite her fate she's "worth knowing". (Are you in love yet?!)  As she gets to know him better, she discovers he's dealing with a pain and sorrow all his own and what neither he nor Tessa expects is just how much they'll end up helping each other.

While this story has it's share of sad moments, one of the funniest is when Tessa decides to try drugs. I laughed so hard I cried and it almost made me want to take a trip of my own, if it weren't dangerous, illegal and wrong, of course.  Her Dad attempts to fulfill her desire to become "famous" but Adam is the one who ultimately comes through in a way that both blows Tessa's mind and breaks her heart.  (What he does makes John Cusak's boombox over the head trick from "Say Anything" look like child's play...sorry John!) 

As the weeks go by, life continues to change not only for Tessa but for those around her too.  Zoey is faced with a tough decision and while she's sulking around, Tessa wonders if she'll even be around  long enough to see the outcome of her friend's decision.  This forces her to re-evaulate her list, the time she has left and how she wants to spend it. 

Tessa and Adam's relationship isn't perfect but one can't help see the positive in it.  In Adam, she finds someone she can be real with. He isn't shocked or freaked out by her illness, even as she gets progressively worse (the hospital scene will have you grabbing the tissues) and he takes the time to listen to her, to really hear her.  In Tessa, Adam discovers he can hope again after his own family's tragedy.  They quickly find themselves falling in love but to what end?  While Tessa truly feels blessed by their relationship she struggles with the cruelty of the timing.

As her life comes to a close, she tries desperately to make sure those around her are cared for after she's gone and wants them to live even if she can't.  The ending of this book is a mix of emotions as promises are kept and tears are shed.  Author Downham paints the final moments of death in a way that are both haunting and beautiful and even though I knew what was coming,  I didn't anticipate my reaction.


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