Gobble goodreads reviews
Thanks to the awesomeness of my web designer, all my goodreads reviews now magically appear on my website here. I hope you’ll take a little time to explore the reviews–and keep an eye out for more. The YA shelf with its many reviews might be especially helpful for librarians, teachers, parents, or folks looking to buy a book that will be a good fit for a special teen in their life. So have fun clicking around! And if you’re a goodreads member yourself, I’d love to be friends.
Here’s a tasty review from my YA shelf to whet your appetite:
Before I Die by Jenny Downham
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 right 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 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.
P.S. Here’s a link to a review of Downham’s second novel, You Against Me. It’s on my wish list, so we’ll see when I get to review it.