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. (From goodreads.com)
I’m just going to start this review by saying WOW! I knew this was going to be a powerful read, it’s been on my wish list for a long time based on the myriad of raving reviews all over the net. Despite knowing this, I was still absolutely blown away by Jenny Downham’s debut novel, and I know it will be one that will stay with me for a long time.
The book begins with 16-year-old Tessa facing up to the reality that her leukaemia is terminal. Rather than just take to her sick bed, Tessa plans a list of things she wants to experience before she dies. Beginning with sex, and including drugs, breaking the law, driving a car and the one she is almost too afraid to wish for, falling in love. While these may not seem particularly virtuous wishes, they are ones that are completely in keeping with a sixteen-year-old girl and I could completely understand them. What is so amazing about Jenny Downham’s portrayal of Tessa is just how completely believable she is. Apart from having cancer, there is nothing special about Tessa, she is just an everyday girl, and this makes her absolutely stunning in her own right.
Downham doesn’t take the easy way out, and spin us a fairy story. For example, within the first few pages Tessa enlists her friend Zoey to help her and this sees them heading out to a club to meet a guy and have sex. Her experience is disappointing though, and is cringe worthily realistic. Tessa is just like the thousands of girls who naively dream of feeling true love, the earth moving and everything else they are led to believe but find the reality is far different. It’s all the more poignant as a reader, knowing why she wants this so much, but part of her journey is to realise that love isn’t physical.
Amongst the thousands of positive reviews, I have read negative ones that criticise Tessa for being selfish, arrogant and un-likable. I really think this is unjustified and that the beauty and heartbreak about her is that she IS just a normal teenager. She doesn’t become a martyr or saintly because she is dying, she is still a teenage girl. How many girls of this age have fought against boundaries, their parents and the world; screaming ‘it’s not fair?’ Why, because her life is going to be cut cruelly short, should she be any different? To me, the book would be less credible if she was accepting and serene. I’m sadly no longer a teenager myself, but I do still remember how it feels. Had I been handed a card so cruel as Tessa’s, I think I would have fought against it too. It’s a brave but true voice Downham gives Tessa, so when she wishes illness on strangers on the bus rather than herself, I felt only sympathy for the character. Deep down wouldn’t any of us think why not you instead of me?
The book is told in the first person from Tessa, and this really does take us deep inside her mind, and makes it a very emotional story. The other characters within the book aren’t really explored, but the story isn’t about them…it’s about Tessa. Her father is portrayed well, and I could vividly imagine his denial as he sits for hours researching cancer treatments on the net and his pain and love as he realises how close he is to loosing her. I also liked Tessa’s friendship with Zoey, despite really disliking her to begin with. As the story develops it becomes clear that she has problems of her own, that her hard faced exterior is just an act and she is fiercely loyal and desperately scared of loosing Tessa. Her blossoming relationship with Alex is written beautifully. It’s tender, naïve, awkward, romantic and will bring a tear to any reader’s eye. One relationship I did struggled to understand was with Tessa’s mother, who doesn’t live with the family. She seemed vague and uninvolved. If I had one tiny criticism of the book it would be that this relationship could have been explored more.