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Friday, March 14, 2008

Before I Die by Jenny Downham

This was an incredibly well written book, but oh, so hard to get through. The title should have been enough to let me know what I was in for, but the depth of this novel was incredible and SO intense. Horn Book, a review journal, said this about the novel, "Downham's impressive first novel is a searingly intimate portrait of a sixteen-year-old facing imminent death" and that is right on. It's so intimate that the pain, for me at least, became real.

Tessa, a 16 year old girl with leukemia, decides that she wants to LIVE with whatever time she's got left, and begins making a list of the ten things she really wants to do before she dies. Most of them are pretty dramatic and not necessarily healthy choices, but she figures she's got nothing to lose, and were I sixteen and dying, I guess I might make some of the same choices. So most of the book is about what crazy thing she's going to try next. But a lot of the book deals with the relationships she has with the people around her, like her parents (divorced), her little brother, her best friend, and her neighbor/boyfriend, Adam. All of these people, like Tessa, are trying to cope with her illness and the idea of losing her, and they all succeed and fail to different degrees at different times in the story.

I lost one of my best friends to cancer, and although she was older, this story reminded me of so many moments during her illness. Things she went through, things I went through, things I saw happen with her family - it was all there in this book. I think Jenny Downham must have lived through the death of someone she loved to have written about it so clearly, so respectfully, so deeply. I could barely breathe by the end.

An incredibly powerful read for mature older readers, this book is available at Multnomah County Libraries.

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