It is rewarding as a reader to encounter a unique story, and Jenny Downham's Before I Die is one such find. Downham has constructed a teen novel that is neither overly sweet nor patronizing—instead, Before I Die offers a candid and piercing view of the way a teenager's mind works.
Tessa, a 16-year-old battling cancer, makes a list of the things she wants to experience before her life ends: Sex, drugs and love are all on the agenda. There is no surprise happy ending here, but the journey of the novel itself is emotionally surprising. Tessa is sarcastic, rude and bitter—all that we expect a teenager to be—yet as the novel progresses, her anger at her failing health evolves into an appreciation of the smaller joys life presents. She notices the way the sunlight looks in her tea, appreciates the taste of kiwi and hears someone moving dishes in the kitchen.
Downham's prose is poetic, and her images are vivid. The reader sees Tessa, hears her breathe, experiences her first love and holds her hand as her body gives up. The most remarkable relationship in the novel is that of Tessa and her next-door neighbor, Adam. Though the romantic relationship is initiated and determined by the strong-willed narrator, it is an extraordinary pairing. Adam is patient with Tessa's fluctuating consciousness toward the end, and he remains by her side throughout night sweats, hospital stays and final moments. Their hearts seem to have known one another for an impossibly long time, and it is this blending of the soul where the edges of each individual are indecipherable that is the most devastating aspect of Tessa's demise.
This is an exceptional story, one that will bring tears to the eyes of adults as well as younger readers. The novel moves relentlessly toward the brink and develops a set of unforgettable characters. I am pleased to have known Tessa—as I feel that I have—and I am carrying her with me.
Katie Lewis is a student at Saint Louis University.