I read a book last week that I thought was fabulous: Before I Die by Jenny Downham. It’s billed as a young adult novel, and older teens would probably enjoy it, but so did I.
Tessa (aka Tess), a 16-year-old girl in England, has terminal cancer, and decides there are a number of things she needs to do before she dies. She’s not especially saintly, so, among other items, her list includes shoplifting, doing drugs, and having sex. Of course, none of these experiences turns out exactly as she plans, but there are no sappy, moralistic lessons here—just some hard, life lessons.
Actually, that’s one of things I admired most about this novel: Tessa’s family and friends are complicated, and no one here is saintly. Dying is not much fun for anyone, and no one pretends that it is.
My comments thus far don’t do justice to how funny and charming the book is (yes…a funny and charming book about death!).
The book is told in the first-person, and Tessa’s voice is powerful and engaging, but being in the first person with a dying character can require a lot of Kleenex along the way. As you can imagine, there’s no happy ending, yet this was one of the most life-affirming books I’ve ever read, offering hope that death may our only true moment of serenity and peace.
I’ll quote the review in the New York Times that I read way back in October, the review that led me to this book: “I don’t care how old you are. This book will not leave you.”
Here's a great interview with author Jenny Downham. She notes, “I kept a diary for Tess whilst I was writing and every morning I started my day by writing the previous day’s entry. Tess read the paper and listened to the news. She went for walks. I began to see things through her eyes quite a lot because I knew I’d have to write her diary later. I spent hours and hours imagining how it might feel to be her.”
And here's the New York Times Book Review review that made me race off to buy the book (though I only just now read it).
And here's more information about the book. Race off to get your hands on this book!