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by Jenny Downham
Listening Library, 2007
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Oct 23rd 2007

Before I Die

Tessa's little brother Cal tells her "I'm going to miss you," when she makes a joke, because they both know she is going to die soon.  She has had leukemia for about four years, and for most of that time she has been fighting it, hoping for a good outcome.  Now she knows that the treatment has not worked, and the best she can hope for is to live several months longer.  She is 16 now, and she probably won't ever be 17.  In the time she has left, she wants to live.  First she wants to have sex.  She goes out with her best friend Zoe to a nightclub, and they pick up a couple of boys.  They get drunk and high and go back home to the boys' place.  The sex that Tessa has unsatisfying that night, and she feels terrible the next day.  But at least she has done the first thing on her list of 10 things she wants to do before she dies.  Like much of her life, the good comes with the bad; she pays dearly for her recklessness.  Yet Tessa is determined to make the most of what she has, even while she still undergoes unpleasant tests like lumbar punctures to check on the progress of her disease. 

Tessa's family life is complicated.  She lives with her father and brother: her mother left when she was eleven and only came back from her travels when she was thirteen.  Now her mother lives on her own, in the same town.  Tessa gets angry with her family very often, and now that they can't punish her, she is ready to go off and take terrible risks that scare them.  She is sick of being compliant and she doesn't want to be a patient any more.  She doesn't want to be around dying people either.  One of the best aspects of this novel is that it gives Tessa such a wide range of emotions, and makes her such a spiky character.  Yet at the same time she experiences the regret and anger that one expects. 

Before I Die is, needless to say, profoundly moving, yet it is never saccharine.  It gives a powerful account of the dynamics of a family going through grief.  As Tessa gets more ill and she gets weaker, the book becomes hard to read because it is so sad.  Her fading from life is both memorable and beautiful.  Other moments are funny and touching.  The reading of the unabridged audiobook by Charlotte Parry is excellent: she manages to capture the different characters, from Tessa's little brother to her parents.  Her tone matches the writing style well, not milking the sadness of the situation, yet allowing the emotions to come through strongly.  Highly recommended. 

© 2007 Christian Perring

Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.