Sunday, November 17, 2013

If you loved The Fault in Our Stars you might like Before I Die by Jenny Downham



Update: If you're a fan of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, you might like Before I Die too. Like Hazel Grace, Tessa has had cancer for quite awhile now. While Tessa attacks her days with more fierce desperation than brave Hazel, I think you'll love her too. The book was made into a film starring Dakota Fanning and Jeremy Irvine. So while you're waiting to see Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort as Hazel and Gus,  here's the story of Tessa and Adam.


Before I Die (Now is Good)
Jenny Downham
227 pages

About the Book:
Before I saw the trailer (below) for Now Is Good starring Dakota Fanning and Jeremy Irvine, I hadn't really heard of Before I Die, the Young Adult novel that the film is based on. But the trailer got me quite curious so I checked it out. Written by Jenny Downham, the title Before I Die is a lot more indicative of what actually takes place in the story. But the films' title Now Is Good actually captures the meaning behind what takes place perfectly.
Tessa, at seventeen has had cancer for four years. Knowing it is incurable, she finally decides to stop treatment so she can savor what she has left of life. And while it sounds like a downer ... at novel's end, there will be tears, oh yes, there will be tears ... it's actually not the weepy sentimental sap you might expect. Here's the opening paragraph.
"I wish I had a boyfriend. I wish he lived in the wardrobe on a coat hanger. Whenever I wanted,  I could get him out and he'd look at me the way they do in films, as if I'm beautiful. He wouldn't speak much, but he'd be breathing hard as he took off his leather jacket and unbuckled his jeans. He'd wear white pants and he'd be so gorgeous I'd almost faint. He'd take my clothes off too. He'd whisper, 'Tessa, I love you. I really bloody love you. You're beautiful.'  - exactly those words - as he undressed me."

That experience is right at the top of the list of things she wants to do BEFORE she dies. She has it written on her bedroom wall. It's a list that includes having sex, doing drugs and breaking the law. A list that as her best friend Zooey says ...
"It's not exactly Disneyland is it?" and "I think your dad's expecting you to ask for a pony, not a boyfriend."

And that's the thing about this book. It's not Disneyland. It's not what you expect when you know it's a story about a teenage girl dying from cancer. This is a book where the characters are so real and flawed and disappointing - the way people are - yet so wonderfully, hopelessly human that you love each and every one of them.

With Zooey's help - the only friend Tessa has who didn't gradually disappear as Tessa became increasingly ill - Tessa goes out and starts ticking experiences off her To Do list. And discovers so much on the way. Like having sex is so much more complex that you can ever imagine, that friends can lift you up and let you down, that fathers - and mothers - don't always know best or do their best, but they try.

I loved that Jenny Downham gave Tessa a best friend that wasn't always there for her - that she had selfish and scared impulses that kept her from Tessa's side 24-7. And that she's not the kind of best friend most parental units would give their blessing to.

Downham also gives Tessa a complicated love story with a boy who is naturally conflicted about his role in Tessa's last days.  It is Tessa's last days that will make you cry. Naturally, but because Downham handles Tessa's death so honestly and without sentimentality, the raw emotion it ellicits is extremely satisfying. One doesn't feel manipulated, one feels strangely hopeful.

As in, I hope I can recognize and appreciate the beauty and grace in my own life. And if I don't make it to the Blue Grotto (at the top of my personal bucket list) let me appreciate the touch of my husband's hand on my back, my son's hug when he thinks I'm sad, and the pleasure of a good book.



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