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124 of 129 people found the following review helpful
Before I Die by Jenny Downham was the most difficult book I've ever had to read. Ever harder to review. I finished it a month ago, but it's taken me this much time to allow some of the ache to go away before I could get it down. It's the story of Tessa, who is 17 and dying of cancer. She lives with her father and younger brother and occasionally sees her estranged mother. Tessa has made of a list of the things that she wants to do before she dies. Many of the things on the list are stereotypical of the average teen: have sex, try drugs. Others are deeper: fall in love, not say no to anyone for an entire day. She completes much of her list, but the ramifications of some of them aren't what she hoped for. Sex with someone she doesn't know or love doesn't fulfill her; drugs are strange and take away what little happiness she has in life. Tessa's father struggles with his daughter's impending death. He feeds her organic food and vitamins in the unspoken hope that somehow, something will change. He and Tessa fight each other as she tries to live what little life she has left to the fullest and he tries to protect her. How do you put limits on or ground a teenager who is going to die? How can you keep her from experiences when all she wants is to feel? She swoops in and out of depression, refusing the leave the bed for days, then suddenly wanting adventure. Her best friend gets pregnant, her parents start moving closer to each other, she falls in love with the boy next door; all sorts of exciting experiences show themselves just as she can't be there to see how any of it turns out. I was shocked to find out that the author of this book was a middle-aged woman; she speaks so authentically as a teenage girl. This book is heartbreaking and uplifting all at once. Tessa is so real that I found myself hoping against hope that somehow the ending would change. But her peace and acceptance toward death was moving. As Tessa's soul drifts away on the final page, so do the words. As the mother of teenage children, this was an especially hard read, but I'm glad I did. Tessa discovers that life is worth living the best you can, even if the best you can is only 17 years.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 15, 2008
Before I Die will truly knock the breath out of you. Tess, the heroine, is dying of leukemia. Rather than spending her final days in bed, she makes a list of things she wants to do before she dies and sets about to accomplish them.

Such a simple premise, such a complicated book. Making a resolution to say "yes" to everything is hard work, Tess finds-- it brings priorities like friends and family into conflict. It does require some suspension of disbelief to believe that the boy who will love her just so happens to be the boy she doesn't know who lives next door, but, given his character, I'll take the suspension and run with it. This is truly a "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose" book, except Tess does realize how valuable the people around her are-- they are the last voices she hears as she drifts off into the inevitable end.

Oddly, the male characters are better drawn than the female supporting characters. One wouldn't expect such a sharp dichotomy, but it seems as if the author poured all of her narrative energies into Tess and didn't have enough for the other women: Tess' mom makes rare appearances, and the character of her best friend, Zoey, is rather flat. Zoey in particular should be drawn more strongly because she represents vitality and life but also consequences; she is a person living life chaotically, without a list, so to speak.

The novel is heartbreaking (even to my rather gruff heart), but it doesn't bog you in depression; rather, it makes you want to find something to do and just do it. The spareness of Tess' life, made so by her illness, allows her to enrich her remaining time with meaning and fulfillment. In her final moments, we know that her plan worked.
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27 of 32 people found the following review helpful
Tessa is 16 and dying of cancer. She knows that she has only months to live and she creates a list of things she wants to experience before she dies: having sex, trying drugs and falling in love being just three of them. This is not your usual teen lit fare. It is a very moving book that feels like a realistic account of a teenager struggling to come to terms with the fact that her life will be over almost before it's begun. Sometimes Tessa is self-pitying, angry or apathetic - but she is also real and brave and you care about her.

This is a quick book to read - it took me a day. It's fairly predictable and aside from Tessa, the characters are pretty sketchy. However its simplicity also makes it feels more genuine, as if it really was penned by a 16 year old. It makes you think about and appreciate your own friends, your family - your very life.

Despite the subject matter it doesn't endorse casual sex (indeed, the potential consequences are very clear!) nor drug use. I wouldn't hesitate to give it to a teenager to read, although I would probably hand over a large box of tissues along with it. It's the kind of book that touches your heart.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
We know three pages into "Before I Die" that sixteen-year-old Tessa won't survive her leukemia--and that there's plenty she still wants from life. So she makes a list and vows to do everything on it before she dies.

Like most teenagers, Tessa is at odds with her parents and angsty about how life's shortchanged her. At first her ranting and left-field demands seem too adolescent. Isn't the looming presence of death supposed to mature her beyond her years?

But that's precisely the kind of "dying-young" trope that Downham admirably resists throughout the novel. Tessa burns up a maddening number of days moping when we think she should be fulfilling her dreams. She finally pushes herself to face facts: "I have two choices--stay wrapped in blankets and get on with dying, or get the list back together and get on with living."

Downham escapes the common shortcoming of many young adult novels in which the only character that ever really matters to us is the speaker. In this novel, Tessa's relationships are so dynamic that we ache with her at the thought of losing them. Throughout the book, their interactions thrum with tension and tenderness.

There's Cal, the tactless younger brother who helpfully explains the process of decomposition. And Zoe, the careless best friend who has her own troubles to wake her up to life. There's Dad in denial, determined to save Tessa through organic foods and fierce hugs. Mom, who cut out about the time of Tessa's diagnosis and who remains slightly outside of the helping circle (without becoming a monster). And there's Adam, the blessing of love and vulnerability that lands next door to Tessa at the crucial time.

And where a lesser writer might swill us readers around in dying-girl thought soup, Downham lets the telling detail speak for Tessa's feelings instead. Her anger comes to us through her as she gives herself points for the imagined deaths of healthy strangers: "One point for the lump on her neck, raw and pink as a crab's claw." We feel her hunger for life as she licks an ice-cream stick until "the wood rasps my tongue." We know her true well-wishes for those she loves as she dreams up a replacement for her boyfriend, a "girl with lovely curves and breath like oranges."

There's nothing treacly here. It's a brave, humanist novel, one that leaves the reader gulping the polluted, precious air of Tessa's world with a passion and astonishment almost as great as Tessa's. Downham earns for us the catharsis of the ending, for her characters come to take up real space in our hearts. Up until the last word, I think, we hope that Tessa will somehow, against all odds, keep breathing.

When she doesn't, we mourn for Tessa just as she wished: by remembering her.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on May 10, 2008
This is one of the best books I have read in my life. When I read this book, I wasn't expecting it to affect me so much and to strike me on such a personal and emotional level. The last pages absolutely make the book. This book has stayed with me for months and months, I still can't get over it. I recommend this book to everyone, along with lots and lots of tissues. "Before I Die" is absolutely phenomenal.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
For a book aimed primarily at young teens, I would be hard pushed to buy it for someone's birthday etc. I brought it on a beach holiday with me and even then found it hard going amongst all the sun, sea and sand.

The story features around Tessa, a 15-year-old girl with terminal cancer, who has a list of 10 things to do before she dies. Losing her virginity, doing drugs, experiencing things she'll never get to experience. But other shocks come along at the same time, things that she never expects - her mum and dad get back together, her best friend gets pregnant etc.

It's shockingly well written, and I found myself turning page after page, and finishing it very quickly (as I do when I'm on a beach for up to six hours a day). The finale was particularly hard to read, which is glaringly obvious, but it's written from Tessa's point of view, and that makes it even harder to read.

In my version of the book, there's an extra bit at the back, an interview with the author, on how she came up with the character and events, and it's quite an interesting way how she writes, she starts with a bunch of ideas, totally disjointed at times, but she manages to thread them all together.

Before I Die is an incredibly sad book, and I'll be recommending it.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on June 23, 2010
I am not sure how to review this book. I think I hated the beginning and started liking it more towards the end. I liked the idea of the list of things to do before she dies. I dont understand the sex scenes though. First of all, they were definitely graphic and shocking for a YA novel and were slightly unbelievable for such young, inexperinced kids. In one paragraph Tessa would go from the young, immature teenager she was to a sex crazed mature older women. I was extremely uncomfortable with it.

As good as some of the things on the list were - drugs, shoplifting...the part that was unbelieveable to me was why didnt Tessa want to be a NORMAL teenager? Why didnt she want to smoke cigarettes, hang out with a bunch of girls at the mall, fail a test, go to the prom etc etc etc? There is no mention of Tessa having a normal teenager's life at all, and I felt that created a huge hole in the story.

Character wise, I would have liked to see her father developed more, since he plays such a prominent role in her life. Her brother Cal was by far my favorite character. His personality was developed more than Tessa. I found him to be funny and charming, and it was his lines at Tessa's deathbed that brought tears to my eyes.

Overall, it was a good story and a quick read and I was interested in the first person perspective of a dying teenager until the end. But Tessa's character flaws and lack of being a "real" teenager, or her desire to be one, caused me to only give this story 2 stars.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on October 5, 2011
First Thoughts:

This was such an amazing and beautiful story. Downham's writing was so beautiful and poetic, it flowed as smooth as a river on a crisp summer morning. This story was written to capture the hearts of the reader and to suck you into Tessa's world so that we could actually know what it is like to live with or have leukemia. I Loved this story all the way around, the structure of it was perfect, the scenery was described in great detail and the emotional pull was what kept the reader and me reading. This was a sad, realistic and wonderful read. There are no words to truly express how this book made me feel and how it changed my view on my own life...If only life wasn't so short.

Summary:

Tessa is diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 13 and three years later at the age of 16 she knows she's going to die, there is no cure for her, its a matter of welting away till there is no more of her. Soon she comes up with a list of things she wants to do before she dies...like have sex, do drugs and say yes to everything for one day....and so with the help of her best friend Zoey she sets off to do these things...

But soon in the midst of all this chaos comes her guardian angel, the boy next door named Adam. He swoops her off her feet and caters to her everyneed, but Tessa wants to push him away, she doesn't want to become attached, she doesn't want anyone to feel the loss of her but soon enough they both know there's no stay apart. Tessa knows she can cross out number 8 on her list; fall in love.

In this captivating story, a girl is trying to find peace within herself before she moves on, she doesn't want to feel like once she dies no one will remember her; she wants to be remembered...

Last Thoughts:

I love, love, love this book, it has moved to the top of my favorites list because it is one of those books that takes you by the hand gently, makes friends with you and then pulls you under so that you can't get out, it's one of those tear jerkers that forces you to keep a stack of tissue beside you and pray that perhaps she will pull through...I want to thank Downham for creating such a mastermind that allows the readers to experience something so special, so personal that I can feel the emotinal drain the main character Tessa feels. This author's writing is showing rather than telling the reader a story of magically woven words, that fill the blissful pages with wonderful interwoven sentences...I give this story 5 stars for such a beautiful and engrossing read.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on February 15, 2011
Tessa Scott is a mere sixteen years old, and in those sixteen years of life the one thing she anticipates most is her death. Death has been looming over her head for the past four years - it's heavy and inescapable. Desperate to live what little life she has left, Tessa enlists reckless best friend Zoey to help her carry out the list. It's a bucket list of sorts stating the ten things she wants to do before she dies.

From wanting to feel a boy's weight on top of her to becoming famous her list isn't only a list of wishes - it's a list that's going to keep her alive. For every one item crossed off another is added, for every one item crossed off it means another day alive, but also another day closer to her death. Through this ever important list, Tessa finally feels what it's like to live, to laugh, to be loved by the most important people in her fading life: her family dad and mum, and little brother Cal, and best friend Zoey. But above all, Tessa learns what it's like to love.

When she meets next door neighbor Adam, she begins to realize that the one thing on her list, the one thing she thought would be impossible is suddenly a bright possibility in the midst of her dark life: falling in love. Because of Adam and his love Tessa's list grows fat and full, but it's not enough. Not even Adam's love isn't enough to keep Tessa alive. When her illness eats its way through her body, making its way from the inside out, it takes the combined strength of every person Tessa has touched to release her from cancer's grip.

Before I Die, Jenny Downham's first novel, is a painful, breath-takeningly beautiful story of love and life. Full of raw and unbridled emotion, readers will find themselves tearing up before the first chapter ends. Downham has crafted such a realistic tone that it's hard to believe Before I Die is a work of fiction. Downham's writing is exquisitely poetic, flowing from one moving moment to the next. As would normally be expected, Before I Die isn't a 'feel bad for me' kind of story.* In fact, it's quite the opposite: it celebrates life and urges everyone to live it to the fullest.

At it's core, this book is an examination of the human connections we all long to make before our time in this world is up. It's an examination of relationships. Downham excels at creating realistically honest characters who cling to one another for strength. Tessa is brutally honest portrait of life coming to its end. Zoey, Tessa's best friend, is reckless on the surface but is just as terrified of living as Tessa is of dying. And there's Adam, the human embodiment of strength, trust, and love - all the things Tessa needs to hang on all the more.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
I've read a lot of books this week, all similar in their themes. Death, overcoming, moving through grief & finding answers to questions that rarely have one.

I've dealt with death in my own way. I've come within seconds of Mr Reaper multiple times through a diagnosis of my own. My death won't come as suddenly as the narrator's as I've lived for fifteen years with my disease, but it's something that I think about often. Afraid to go to sleep, afraid all the time, but putting on a smile to not allow my uneasiness to travel through my friends and family.

She puts together a list of things she wants to do before she dies. She's sixteen and knows she doesn't have much time left. She wants to have sex, drugs, break the law, say "yes" to everything for a whole day. She wants to squeeze in all of life's moments into a few short months- that's all she has left.

It's a quick read. A heavy topic. A sad premise. It will make you reflect on what's truly important in your own life. Immediately after finishing this story, I gathered my daughter into my arms and told my husband that I love him more than anyone else in the world. I grieved with her and discovered the little pieces of life that would normally go slightly unnoticed.

This is a good book. I wouldn't say it was great because I didn't get very attached to the characters like I would have wanted, but it was a very good book.

Try books like this: "Hold Still" by Nina LaCour, "Okay" by Katherine Marple, "Fall For Anything" by Courtney Summers, "If I Stay" by Gayle Forman
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