Before I Die Summary

Jenny Downham

Before I Die

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Before I Die Summary

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Before I Die (2007), a young adult novel by British novelist Jenny Downham, centers on Tessa, a teenager diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. She has been undergoing chemotherapy for four years, but her cancer has progressed to terminal, and her doctors only give her a short time to live. Tessa, along with her best friend, Zoey, develops a list of things she wants to do before she dies, including risky behaviors. As Tessa’s health decreases, the book focuses on her quest to make the most of the time she has left, including potentially finding love with her neighbor Adam. Told in the first person from Tessa’s point of view, Before I Die explores themes of mortality, what it means to truly support someone, and what it means to have a meaningful life. Highly acclaimed, it was nominated for multiple awards including the Guardian Awards, the Lancashire Children’s Book of the Year, and the Carnegie Medal and won the Branford Boase award. It was adapted into the 2012 film Now Is Good, starring Dakota Fanning as Tessa.

Tessa is having a bad day and wishes she had a boyfriend who loved her and could make it easier to face this. Her brother and father try to get her out of bed, but she doesn’t respond until her best friend, Zoey, comes over. The two girls talk, and Zoey convinces Tessa to go out to a nightclub to dance. Zoey tells Tessa there are no consequences for someone like her, and there’s nothing to worry about. Tessa has written out a list of ten things she wants to do before she dies. The first item on the list is sex; this is the main reason she goes to the club. The girls find two guys, Jake and Scott, who are willing to take them back to their place. Tessa is hesitant, but Zoey convinces her to take the chance. Tessa and Jake have sex, but it isn’t the experience she was hoping for. She winds up crying and going home with Zoey. Tessa’s father is angry she stayed out so late. The next day, Tessa, her father, and her younger brother, Cal, go to visit Tessa’s mother. Tessa’s parents are divorced, and her mother is not deeply involved in the family anymore. Tessa’s headaches and pain in her stomach start to get worse, and she goes to the doctor for a spinal tap. The next day, Tessa fights with Cal; in anger, he says he hopes she dies. She spends the day looking through an old stash of letters from her time in the hospital, then, heads over to talk to her neighbor Adam. When Tessa and her father go to see the doctor, they learn that her cancer is spreading faster than expected; it’s in her central nervous system. She only has a short time left.

Tessa decides she’s going to continue with her list for as long as she has; number two is to say yes to everything for a whole day. She takes Cal to the fair, buys a big bag of meat, jumps into a river, and tells an old man she loves him. Cal is confused by her strange behavior, so she tells him about the list; they have fun until Tessa starts to feel ill. She collapses and wakes up in the hospital. Her father finds out about the list, but she doesn’t tell him what’s on it because next is trying drugs. She talks to Adam, and he tells her he can get her and Zoey some mushrooms. They go out to the woods and have a hallucinogenic experience. Tessa climbs a tree. After this, she doesn’t leave the house for two weeks, as her situation starts to get to her. Zoey hasn’t been over in a while and lies about being in class. Tessa talks to Adam, he gives her a motorcycle ride, and they talk about what scares them. Tessa continues with her list. Next is to break the law as many times as possible in one day. Even though Zoey is oddly distant, she agrees to take Tessa shoplifting. Tessa gets caught but is only given a warning. Her father is worried about her. Zoey is preoccupied with Scott. Adam and Tessa become closer, but Tessa pushes him away because she doesn’t want to hurt him.

Next up on the list is driving, so she sneaks out and steals her dad’s car. She drives over to Zoey’s house, where they get into a big fight. The two drive to a hotel that Tessa remembers from her childhood. Zoey reveals that she’s pregnant with Scott’s baby; she wants to get an abortion but isn’t sure if she’s too late being already at three months. Tessa hears that the baby is due in May when she’s scheduled to die and wants Zoey to keep it. Tessa and Adam have an awkward first kiss. Next on Tessa’s list is fame; her father helps her achieve it by setting up a radio interview for her where she talks about her disease and the list. Tessa’s original seventh entry on the list was to travel the world, but she doesn’t have time and has changed it to trying to get her parents back together. They’re spending more and more time together as Tessa’s health gets worse. Zoey comes over for Christmas and reveals that her parents kicked her out of the house after she told them she was pregnant. She decides she wants to have the baby. Eighth on Tessa’s list is love, and as Tessa and Adam grow closer, she realizes she loves him. They start going out on dates, although Tessa’s health continues to get worse and interrupt them. Adam spreads Tessa’s story everywhere, and she becomes more and more famous. She asks her parents to allow Adam to move in, which is number nine on her list, but they refuse. Her mother gets her dad out of the house so Tessa and Adam can have a romantic dinner date. He sleeps over.

Tenth on Tessa’s list is to see Zoey’s baby be born. The family is planning a trip to Sicily before Tessa gets too sick, but she develops a severe fever and ends up in the hospital. It’s eight weeks until Zoey’s due date; Tessa isn’t sure she has that long to live. She leaves the hospital without permission and goes to see Adam only to find out he’s out at a college interview. She’s upset at the reminder that he’s planning for a life after she’s gone. Her father comes home; Tessa tells him she no longer wants to be subjected to constant medical treatments. Adam comes over, and she asks him if he was ever going to tell her he was going to college. He tells her that he’s never been really happy until he met her, and he wants to honor that by doing something that matters with his life. Tessa asks her nurse Phillipa what dying is like. Philippa tells her she’ll get weaker and might lose her ability to talk or see before the end. So she asks for a cup of tea and writes a letter to her father. Cal and Tessa bond while they still can, and she spends more time with Zoey. Adam spends more and more time over at the house with her. As Tessa begins to deteriorate, her sight goes; people spend time by her side and talk to her. She loses the ability to talk but listens carefully as her friends and family tell her how much they love her. She thinks about Adam and how much he meant to her. As she has more and more trouble breathing, everyone gathers around her to say their goodbyes. She tries to hold on for them, but she knows it’s time and allows herself to let go.

Jenny Downham is a British novelist and former actress, the author of three books: Before I Die; You Against Me; and Unbecoming. She played a role in the 1998 British drama, Basil.