Jenny Downham

Before I Die

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  • Features 46 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a professional writer with an MFA in Creative Writing
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Before I Die Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 42-page guide for “Before I Die” by Jenny Downham includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 46 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Female Rebellion and Grieving versus Caretaking.

Before I Die is a young adult novel by Jenny Downham published in 2007. The narrator is Tessa, a 16-year-old British girl who has terminal leukemia. The novel’s title refers to the things that Tessa would like to experience and accomplish before she dies: having sex, taking drugs, and breaking the law.

Plot Summary

Tessa lives with her patient and devoted father and her younger brother Cal; her mother, who left the family when Tessa was twelve, lives in a separate apartment. Tessa’s list of things she’d like to do before death is her way of behaving like a typical rebellious teenager despite her illness. She keeps the list in her bedside drawer so that her father will not see it.

Nevertheless, Tessa’s plans are complicated by the needs of her family and friends, and by her own illness. Her first time having sex, with a local boy named Jake whom she meets in a nightclub, is a disappointment, and she is later humiliated when she learns that Jake knows about her illness.

Meanwhile, her best friend Zoey has paired off with Jake’s friend and roommate Scott, a short-lived romance that results in Zoey getting pregnant. Zoey’s pregnancy estranges her from her own family, but also focuses and settles her. Zoey ultimately decides to keep the baby, changing from a wild and frivolous teenager to a serene expectant mother.

Over the course of the novel, Tessa’s list of goals changes. For instance, she hopes to meet Zoey’s baby. She also falls in love with her next-door neighbor Adam, an unassuming loner who has a complicated family life of his own.

In order to fulfill Tessa’s plan to take recreational drugs before she dies, she and Zoey take hallucinogenic mushrooms together under Adam’s care; this is the only list item that does not result in disappointment and failure. She finds the experience transcendent, and it gives her the temporary illusion that staying away from the city and modern life will cure her.

Tessa feels a different sort of transcendence and immortality when she drives through a thunderstorm in her father’s stolen car without a driver’s license. She is not frightened at all, even though Zoey—who has come along with her, and whom Tessa has always thought of as wild and fearless—is terrified. The experience gives Tessa a strange appreciation for how her sickness has made her invulnerable to ordinary fears.

As Tessa grows frailer, her friends and family coalesce around her, forming an imperfect, makeshift family of their own. They meet Adam’s troubled mother Sally, who gradually comes out of the fearful isolation that she has been living in since her husband died in a car crash. Tessa comes to terms with her own mother, who is self-centered and irresponsible, but also imaginative and charming. Tessa’s mother and father tentatively reconcile—an arrangement that might or might not last beyond Tessa’s death. Zoey, kicked out of the house by her own family, begins to spend more and more time with Tessa’s family.

Tessa declines suddenly on the eve of a planned family vacation to Sicily. At the hospital, a doctor tells her she could live more eight weeks, just enough time to see Zoey have her baby. As she faces her death directly, Tessa veers between gratitude for the love that she has experienced and terror at the prospect of leaving her loved ones. She also sees the limitations of their ability to care for her, and their instinctive fear of her sickness even while they attempt to reassure her. Impulsively escaping the hospital one day, Tessa takes a taxi to Adam’s house, where Sally informs her that Adam has gone away for a university interview. In a final act of defiance and frustration, Tessa destroys everything that she can find in her room, throwing the remains out the window. She and Adam later reconcile, but the fact that he has a future remains a barrier between them.

Tessa ultimately decides to die at home, and her focus shifts to the imminent reality of her death. She writes a detailed plan for her funeral and gives individual family members silent advice in her head. She meditates over the randomness of her death and remembers bright isolated moments from her recent past. She dies in her own bed, surrounded by her loved ones, looking out the window.

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Chapters 1-21