Friday, November 23, 2007

Jenny Downham/BEFORE I DIE


Tessa Scott is 16 years old and, by her calculation, within 217 days of dying of cancer. Having given up on chemotherapy, she lives at home with her dad and brother, Cal (her mom, a semi-deadbeat who left the family when Tessa was 12, comes by periodically), eats wholesome foods, and spends her time hanging out with her best friend, Zoey. That, and making a list--the 10 things she wants to do before she dies. #1 is have sex. #3 is try illegal drugs. #5 is get famous.

I know it sounds like a subject that's been done to, um, pieces, but Jenny Downham is not Lurlene McDaniel. The prose is beautiful and thoughtful and Tessa's narrative is smart, unflinching, and pitted with tiny, wonderful observations. This book isn't a simple get-out-your-kleenex tearjerker; it's less about death than it is a focus on the amazing things there are in life that we are wont to miss when we're not at risk of losing them. Tessa isn't a selfish narrator, either--she takes the time to notice things like her dad's loneliness and his still-burning torch for her mother; Zoey's insecurities and teenage errors; her brother's shyness, fears, and launch into adolescence. There's a lot of wisdom and grace in a book that could have been done luridly and cheaply to the same relative attention.

There's a lot of buzz building around this book, which was an adult book in the UK but billed as a YA book here (much like THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME, which, like BEFORE I DIE, is easily appreciated by adults). In this case I want to say the buzz is worth it--the story is good, the writing is flawless and rich, and the lens the book offers you to look at your own life reminds you of what is precious. A good read.

Plus, here's an example of a book that braves sex, drugs, and other hot-button YA lit concerns realistically and responsibly (in an unglorified but unboring way that kids will find interesting because of its honest information but adults will find acceptable because it addresses repercussions seriously).

Jenny Downham's story is one of the perks for me, too--a single mother of two boys (ages 7 and 12), 43-year-old Downham lives in subsidized housing in a less than glamorous part of east London, and her sudden fame is surprising and uncelebrated (here's her very soft-spoken literary profile).

1 comment:

Church Lady said...

This sounds like a sympathetic story. A single mother living in subsidized housing--has got to keep one grounded and sensitive to details many of us would miss.
Sounds like a great book.
A great review!