January 5, 2012

Thursdays with Macky • Tessa's To Do List

Before I Die book cover
Before I Die by Jenny Downham
Publisher: David Fickling Books
Publication Date: July 5, 2007
Source/Format: Bought || Kindle e-book

Tessa has just months to live. Fighting back against hospital visits, endless tests, drugs with excruciating side-effects, Tessa compiles a list. It’s her To Do Before I Die list. And number one is Sex. Released from the constraints of ‘normal’ life, Tessa tastes new experiences to make her feel alive while her failing body struggles to keep up. Tessa’s feelings, her relationships with her father and brother, her estranged mother, her best friend, and her new boyfriend, all are painfully crystallised in the precious weeks before Tessa’s time finally runs out.

Before I Die is the story of a girl dying of leukemia. It's not exactly the most original of ideas, but what makes this story unique is the girl in question.

If you let Tessa in - if you look beyond the angst, past the list of things she’s steeled herself to do before succumbing to cancer and straight into her heart - chances are she’ll stay with you forever.

I only really read stories that draw me in. And I’m really only drawn in if I have characters to care about. I have nothing against frail, dying, British girls with a chip on their shoulder. If I met Tessa in real life, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t be friends. But there’s something amazing about the style of writing in the first person that allows you a no-holds barred look into a person’s thoughts and heart.

Am I in love with Tessa? Maybe not. But read to the end of the book. You'll see how she puts thoughts together, see how she views the world and even see her reflected through the eyes of the people that love her. And like me, you just may end up loving her as well - and not because she’s dying (since that’s probably the last thing Tessa would want).

You’ll love her because of how she’s chosen to live.

The Good

I love Britain. Not in the fanboy, memorize-everything-about-something kind of love. But the kind of love where you just have an affinity for it, like it’s in your bones. So seeing that this story is set in the UK, you’ll read people calling cigarettes "fags", and using expressions like “bloody” and “rubbish”. I do a fairly good set of English accents myself, so reading this book was a TREAT.

And if the language is British, so is the tone. It’s rather dark. And why not? It is about coping with death. But the dark tone is just the canvass for Downham’s ability to bring forward the passion in Tessa’s heart. The way the author strings words together is nothing short of poetic. It’s like the whole book plays in your head like it were in black and white and sepia, and then blossoms into full color when Tessa manages to express her spirit at just the right times. And then, without warning, it's back to the gritty reality fading into black and white.

Personally, though it’s not my style or my preference, Jenny Downham’s style is just downright beautiful. Bloody brilliant, if I do say so myself. If you’re into the whole teen-drama-set-to-poetic-prose thing.

The Whut

Sex, drugs, and breaking the law - what teenagers nowadays don’t do at least one of these things at least once in their teens? I am not now nor shall I be an advocate of any of these things and “teen years” in the same context but regardless of my personal views, this stuff is real. It happens… and in the book, Tessa makes it happen.

Granted, it’s a bit sanitized and even (Grimm) fairytale-esque the way Tessa crosses these things off her list but I’ll chalk that up to the “life-imitating-art-imitating life thing” where in this universe, a dying girl can have most of it without too many devastating consequences.

Overall, I totally would not paint Tessa as a “the picture perfect heroine” but it’s exactly the fact that she’s not Jamie Sullivan from A Walk to Remember that makes her story different. That's the part I appreciate. The fact that she’s distinctly Tessa is what makes this story unique.

It’s gritty and yet surreal, dark and yet idyllic. Tessa’s choice of things to do before she dies didn’t include skydiving or a long walk on the beach, watching the sunset and kissing the boy she loves. She’s not my type. But because of the awesome things about this book, I have ended up loving her dearly.

The Awesome

This book is a family piece framed from the psyche of a dying teenaged girl. Just seeing how her divorced parents, her younger brother, her best friend and eventually the guy she loves positions themselves around her as she walks through her illness is enough for anyone to be drawn in.

That’s if you let yourself be drawn in. I’m not a big fan of YA, but thanks to Alexa and books like these, I am slowly converting and adding YA contemporary to the things I read and love.

I am always drawn to a story because I become emotionally invested in the characters. There’s a raw and yet ethereal quality to Tessa and her world that just gripped me hard. Every uncensored thought, every raw emotion, each scheme and plan - it led me to a point where I let Tessa in. And she has stayed with me, even after turning the last (virtual) page.

I don’t know if you’ll like her. But her story is worth a read. Her friends and family and yes even the almost-too-perfect boy are just as endearing if you take them into context of what Tessa’s going through.

Finally, this book is a heart breaker - the kind of heartbreak that’s like a trainwreck you can walk away from (but not without injury). I haven’t cried this hard since Kurt Wagner teleported over a fist through his chest in the Second Coming story arc of the X-Men. (Though I must say Nightcrawler’s fate and the aftermath in the X-men’s lives have scarred me deeper than this book… but that’s just the geek in me.)

There’s a kind of sadness that’s beautiful. And not in a goth vampire wannabe way, but in a “this is real life and real life can suck but you can make the best out of it” kind of way.

The books I love, I do because I care about the characters. This one’s for you, Tessa. Keep warm, love.


  1. now there's a unique way to end 2011... :P glad you liked the review!

  2. This book was so sad, it was the last book I read of 2011 and it left me feeling a bit down. Great review too :)

  3. Thanks for the encouraging posts ladies! Or rather I'm incredibly encouraged by what you've posted. :)

    I'm incredibly new at this whole new fangled blogging thing... so it's really awesome you guys liked the review. :D more to come!

  4. Innnnnteresting. This sounds like it could be an incredibly sad book but your review has definitely piqued my interest!

  5. Sounds like it takes a difficult topic and handles it well. I actually have a friend with a terminal disease and she went though this stage where she was going to "try everything" before she died. It might be too much for me to read, but I loved your review. Thanks!

  6. Sara (of the Page Sage)February 6, 2012 at 12:09 PM

    I LOVED You Against Me by Jenny Downham, so I've wanted to read this. It seems like it's good! I know what you mean about loving Britain. I'm not obsessed with it, but it just holds this appeal. (I think Harry Potter has made everyone just love Britain all the more, too, just on the off chance it is hiding a wizarding school haha)

  7. Love your review style, Macky! You're very fun to read. :) If you cried during this book, there's a 104747383290593478239012375% chance I will too. And harder. I hate books that make me cry, so I doubt I'll be perusing this. I wish I felt differently, because I'm sure I could learn a lot from this book. Cancer is awful, and these stories should be told more to raise awareness and understanding. It's just so unbelievably heartbreaking, though, at the same time. I'm glad you enjoyed it, though, ad I'm glad Alexa is pushing you towards YA contemporary. I was always very leery and stand-offish when it came to this specific genre, but I've grown to really love it!

  8. What up, Macky! This review was great! I've had my fill recently of cancer books so I might have to take some time to steal myself before I grab this one, but your review was honest and awesome. Can't wait to see what else you're going to review! :-)

  9. Oh I have actually read this book! which I had forgot about until I read your review. I liked this book. It was nice

  10. That's really sweet Amy! Yeah... one can really only have their fill of cancer/young death books before needing some form of therapeutic treatment... glad you enjoyed it!


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