Author: Jenny Downham
Publication Date: 4/5/07
Publisher: David Fickling Books
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.
Tessa has been treated for leukemia for the past four years. Now, since her treatment options have been exhausted, she is spending her last few months completing a list of things she wants to do before she dies. The list includes some predictable items (breaking a few laws, driving, having sex) and a few curveballs (experiencing love, getting her parents back together) but most of the book is dedicated to Tessa’s experiences as she attempts to finish her list and come to terms with her death.
Have you ever seen that Dane Cook standup bit where he talks about how we cry? He starts off talking about how you just start out crying and then it goes downhill from there as we imagine all the worst things possible to make us cry even harder. I’m not advocating Dane Cook’s standup (I’m much more of a Jim Gaffigan girl) but I always laugh at Cook’s crying bit because he’s pretty spot-on. I read the first 50 pages of this when I was PMSing and I was like “This is so awful! It must be so terrible for Tessa and her family. She’ll never get to do x. She’ll never get to do y. Oh my God, it must be terrible for these families. Losing a child is horrible. This is awful for her brother. What if I lost MY brother? What if I died? What if one of my siblings died? I miss my grandparents. I can’t believe I wasn’t more there for my friend when she lost x. What will I do when I lose my parents?!” and by this point I can’t even open my eyes. So, yeah, I put this one back down for a week. Aaaand, when I picked it back up, I was able to complete most of the book with a straight face. (until the ending, when I totally lost it again) But the point is that I was mostly crying because I exacerbated the situation by my own volition. You might not cry in this one.
The writing in this one is pretty solid but I’m a little ashamed to say that Tessa is a frustrating character. She has a right to be selfish but she goes beyond that--she is often unnecessarily mean at times, mostly to her father. Her mother, on the other hand, deserves all the meanness Tessa could dish out to her. (which, sadly, doesn’t really happen) It takes a certain type of horribleness to abandon your sick child. It’s hard to know what to do when people are sick, or how to help your friends when they are losing or have lost someone. We are all pretty much winging it. But just being there is often enough—and Tessa’s mother couldn’t even be present for years of her daughter’s illness. She can join the father from another recent read of mine, Sisters in Sanity, in the Awful YA Parent Club.
I felt like the most interesting part of the book had nothing to do with Tessa’s list or her budding love. I most enjoyed her interactions with her brother. The factoids they shared and the frank discussions about what happens when you die were so interesting to me—I’m still thinking about the way the author described being buried under an apple blossom tree. (I loved that bit) And I also really enjoyed Tessa’s notes to her family and Zoey. These arent’ really spoilers, in case anyone is wondering…
I have no clue who I would recommend this to. My Goodreads friends are all over the ratings scale and I’m staking my flag down in the 3-star zone. I guess if you “enjoy” books about death and dying, or if you are looking for a cry, this might be a good pick for you. I mean, sometimes I watch Little Women just to cry when Beth dies. We’re all a little messed up—at least, I hope it’s not just me.