Before I Die - Jenny Downham

I curl up at the foot of the stairs. This is where the cat sits when she wants to trip people over. I've always wanted to be a cat. Warm and domesticated when you want to be, wild when you don't.

Pretty shortly after I'd read Deadline, I heard about this book, which seemed to have a similar plot only with a girl as the main character (and British, which I didn't know until I read it). It's hard for me to think about this book without comparing it to Deadline, so that's what I'll do.

The premise is the same: high schooler with a terminal disease (in Tessa's case, leukemia) has a list of things to do before death. To borrow a line from "Shawshank Redemption": get busy living, or get busy dying. However, Tessa's approach is quite different from Ben's. Ben kept his illness a secret, and decided to go all out for a great senior year. Tessa has been sick for several years so it's no secret; she's no longer in school and her list includes things like doing drugs, driving her dad's car without a license, and committing crimes for a day. (Both, naturally, have sex pretty high on the list.)

Before I Die focuses a lot more on the illness: the symptoms and effects, Tessa's deteriorating appearance, the various hospital visits and blood transfusions. (Ben's disease in Deadline was an unnamed MacGuffin, something that conveniently had no immediately outward symptoms.) It's more about the experience of being sick. Tessa's behavior is often impulsive and brash, without any consideration for how it may affect anyone else. The driving is a good example: even if her father would have objected to drugs and crime, you'd think he would probably allow her to try driving if she'd asked, instead of stealing the car and driving out to the coast.

In the end, Deadline was probably written more to drive home a message about what's important in life, and Before I Die is more like the diary of a girl who gradually learns what's important as she's dying. Ben's goals are high-minded and mostly well-planned. Tessa's are wild and dangerous, as if she thinks "really living" consists of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. My preference for Deadline may be as much a matter of my age as my gender or nationality.

Fed to jonathan's brain | August 10, 2008 | Comments (0)


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