Tessa makes a list of the things she wants to do and experience before she dies, and the book is about how she moves through that list--and the final months of her life.
When I was on internship at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, I did a rotation on the oncology unit. I didn't work there very long, only six months, but it was an experience I'll never forget. I witnessed the struggles of families trying to remain close, to remain themselves, despite the disease that had twisted up their lives. Some were having to help their beloved children through the process of dying.
The question that kept coming up?
Nope, not WHY. I mean, there was that, but most families had a much more pressing concern:
How do you parent a kid who's dying? Can you set any limits and boundaries at all, or do you just let them do whatever they want (like Tessa, who wants to have sex and try drugs and drive a car even though she doesn't have a license)? How do you help when there's no fixing it?
And ... how do you deal with a kid who's just plain angry?
That one was the hardest. Right when loved ones wanted to be close, the kid was sometimes shoving them away.
In Before I Die, Tessa is angry sometimes. Inconsiderate. Even cruel on occasion. (She is also bright and generous and creative and curious and lovely.) I've read (a very few) reviews where readers said they didn't find Tessa that sympathetic.
I was stunned.
You're reading a book about a girl who's dying, and you expect her to be OK with it? You want her to be peaceful and loving all the time? Really? I mean, that would be utterly cheap (and boring), but leaving that aside ...
How would YOU feel if you were sixteen and your life was coming to an end? If you watched your healthy classmates live their lives with wide-open futures, and you'd been informed you wouldn't see another summer? If you'd found a boy who cared about you, who made you feel good, and you were counting the times he touched you, and wanting a lifetime of those feelings, and. And.
Tessa's supposed to be experimenting. Figuring out who she is and starting to solve real-life problems on her own. Exerting some control over herself and her choices. That's what sixteen-year-olds must do. And she does, all while coping with her failing body. Knowing her death is going to hurt people she loves and who love her, but needing them near her anyway, fighting with them anyway, getting closer to them anyway. How any kid, any person, wouldn't be at least a little angry about that, I do not know.
Research shows that young people with cancer are actually reasonably well-adjusted in comparison to their peers. But those were kids in remission, not kids who were considered terminally ill.
At the beginning of Before I Die, I read out of curiosity. And admiration for Jenny Downham's tremendous gift for simple, powerful description. The novel is written in first-person, present-tense, and no other style could have worked--the immediacy of Tessa's experience is perfectly conveyed. If you want a lesson in adding detail and idiosyncrasy to a narrative to keep it grounded while at the same time rendering it unique, read this book.
So I marked (NUMEROUS) passages and reread them. And I liked Tessa. I thought she was genuine and believable. I was OK with what I knew was going to happen at the end of the book.
By the time I reached the halfway point, my curiosity and admiration were gone--in favor of feeling Tessa's fear and frustration and joy right along with her. As she negotiates a new and fragile relationship, as she has moments of hope and triumph, I was thinking:
Not yet. Not yet. Not yet.
Before I Die is a beautiful book, and also a painful one. But definitely worthy of a read.
How do you keep characters genuine and believable and relatable even when they're going through something that makes them miserable? Do you feel the temptation to soften them up to keep them sympathetic? Do you pull back from ugliness and anger because you worry you'll lose your reader? And when you read, what is it about a character that keeps you walking down that road, and turning those pages, with him/her? What makes you care about a character like this, and what puts you off?