Before I die, written by Jenny Downham, is hands down one of my favourite books of all time. As an enthusiast of literature that contains relatively dismal content, for example books that centre around or include illness or death, I could tell just from reading the blurb that it would be an interesting read.
As said on the blurb, “Sixteen- year-old Tessa is going to die. And she’s made a list of ten things she wants to do in the time she has left”. I find Tessa an unlikeable character, yet I also love her. She’s pessimistic and often rude, but also fiercely independent and caring. She also does not want sympathy, pity or attention because of her illness, which I found admirable. Luckily, her family and friends refuse to do so anyway, for very different reasons. Her father will not stop researching any potential methods to make Tessa healthy again, despite her protests that she’s now accepted her fate. He does worry about Tessa and tries to stop her from completing her list, but this is just a standard parent-child relationship: the parent tries to stop the child from getting into trouble. However, he does not pity her. Her mother left when she was younger and she does not fully understand the ins and outs of Tessa’s condition, particularly the technicalities of her hospital visits. She tends to treat Tessa as though she’s more of a friend as opposed to her daughter. Cal, her younger brother, is one of the characters I find most interesting. They have a typical sibling relationship, particularly with Cal’s bluntness and insults towards Tessa when she irritates him, which only seem particularly shocking because of her illness, “I hope you die while I’m at school! And I hope it bloody hurts! And I hope they bury you somewhere horrible like the fish shop or the dentist’s!’. But the reader also gets to see the pair’s fondness and affection towards each other. I have never read this book through without crying (this is the only novel I have read so far that I can’t help but cry at), and it is always at the same part: Cal’s refusal to give Tessa permission to die.
‘It’s all right, Tessa, you can go. We love you. You can go now.’
‘Why are you saying that?’
‘She might need permission to die, Cal.’
‘I don’t want her to, she doesn’t have my permission.’
‘Maybe you should say goodbye, Cal.’
‘It might be important.’
‘It might make her die.’
‘Nothing you can say can make her die. She wants to know you love her.’
Tessa’s brutal honesty towards everything, particularly her own situation, has an intensity that is not often found in other novels. If we compare this to The Fault in Our Stars, for example, it’s true that both Hazel and Tessa have a pessimistic outlook on life, but John Green writes his characters as if they are almost poetic, with much more compassion and humour. Tessa is more realistic. She assembled a list of what seems to be reckless, destructive and unachievable objectives but this is purely because of her circumstances. If we inserted her objectives into the life of a healthy sixteen year old teenager, some of them are still wild, but they are also more standard (have sex, travel the world, take drugs, etc). This proves that Tessa won’t let herself stand by and not live what little time she has left to the fullest. What I also like about Tessa is that she won’t let herself be patronised. Another objective on her list is fame, so her father arranges a radio interview for her. When Richard Green (the interviewer) makes her “sound like a right twat”, as payback she starts talking about her list. At first “his eyes light up”, but once Tessa mentions the illegal acts she’s committed, he “begins looking a little edgy”. This is evidence that Tessa is an intelligent girl, and is able to control and manipulate a situation so it suits her.
In her relationships, Tessa is strong and will absolutely not be made a fool of. When getting to know Adam, and he remarks that there’s “no point” of anything happening between them, Tessa immediately removes herself from the situation and puts Adam out of her mind, until he apologises. This proves that she will not waste what little time she has left in self pity. Once Tessa and Adam begin their relationship, the way she describes her love for him is moving, and also sad. “It’s the first time I’ve ever called his name. It sounds strange on my tongue, and powerful, as if something will happen if I say it often enough”. Tessa, for all her pessimism, understandably cannot help clinging onto hope that she doesn’t have to die, if she stays with Adam for long enough, she can escape the inevitable. Adam makes her grateful, and happy for the life that she has, because she got to meet him. “I’m alive, blessed to be with him on this earth, at this very moment”.
Another character I found interesting is Zoey, Tessa’s best friend. Zoey point blank refuses to treat Tessa as though she’s nothing more than a victim of cancer, which is part of the reason why Tessa enjoys her company so much. In fact, Zoey encourages Tessa’s list and is the reason she completes so many of her objectives before she dies. However, Zoey’s insistence of dismissing Tessa’s illness made me as a reader feel as though she was sometimes very insensitive towards her, and quite self centred. That being said, if Tessa hadn’t had Zoey throughout her final days she would have undoubtedly had a much more miserable and unfulfilling end.
The only negative I can find from this story does not come from the novel itself, but from the film adaptation. Personally, I found the film adaptation of this novel, ironically going against my argument in my last blog post, to be quite unsatisfactory. Dakota Fanning, who played Tessa, did not capture her intensity at all, in my opinion. I also envisioned Adam to be a lot more unconventional looking, as it is often stated in the book that he is not attractive until he smiles. However, I have spoken to people who enjoyed the interpretation presented in the film, which goes to show that it’s down to your own personal opinion.
THANK YOU FOR READING!