I have friends (you know who you are) who have been known to cry during long-distance-phone commercials. I am not one of those people. I like to think of myself as a seen-it-all cynic, a journalist, dammit, impervious to emotional manipulation.
How, then, do I explain that toward the end of chapter 25 of Before I Die, Jenny Downham’s highly affecting debut novel about a 16-year-old British girl with leukemia, I began to tear up? By chapter 38, with about 40 pages to go, I was pacing my living room, unwilling to even sit down, dashing to the bathroom to blow my nose while propping the book open so I could squint through my tears to follow the heart-wrenching story of Tessa and her tight circle of family and friends. Before I Die gutted me as no work of art has done in recent memory.
It all begins with the voice. ”I wish I had a boyfriend,” announces Tessa, Downham’s utterly convincing teenage narrator. ”I wish he lived in the wardrobe on a coat hanger. Whenever I wanted, I could get him out and he’d look at me the way boys do in films, as if I’m beautiful.” That opening neatly encapsulates so much about modern youth, from the longing to the immature understanding of love to the way the media shape such misunderstandings.
Downham follows all of the tropes you expect in a book titled Before I Die. But she knows how to scruff up her characters around the edges, upsetting just enough of our expectations to keep things interesting. Tessa is a good girl, but she’s no Goody Two-shoes. She bickers with her younger brother, stays out past curfew, and defies her single dad as any normal teen would. When she crafts a list of things she wants to do while she’s still healthy — one of the hoariest of cancer-story clichés — item No. 1 is have sex. No. 3 is do drugs (though it should be noted that Tessa gets high on a tea made of legal ‘shrooms).
Unfortunately, Downham’s publisher has handicapped Before I Die by labeling it a young-adult novel, thus ghettoizing this gem to the back of most bookstores. It’s a shame, because this book is vastly superior to most so-called adult novels with high-school-age protagonists that have been embraced by the literary establishment. (Curtis Sittenfeld’s promising but conventional debut, Prep, springs to mind.) Even as Downham plunges into unabashedly sentimental territory, the stuff of Lifetime movies, Tessa’s plight never turns gloopy or cloying. In luminous prose that rings completely true, Downham earns every tear she wrings from her readers. I trust there will be many of them — many readers and, of course, many tears. A-