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Deadline by Chris Crutcher AND Before I Die by Jenny Downham

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What if you only had a short while to live?

That is the premise of two books I've read recently, both of which apply that premise in different ways. One has a female author and female main character, the other has a male author and male main character. The particular illnesses vary, and the plot begins at different places in the progression of the disease.

Before I Die by Jenny Downham is about a sixteen-year-old girl named Tessa who is dying of leukemia, and only has a few months left to live. She makes a list of the things she'd like to do before she dies, and convinces her friend Zoey to help her carry it out. There's no possible recovery for Tessa, but before she goes, she wants to experience life in different forms. She wants to commit petty crimes and try drugs and have sex and more, and in pursuing her list, she finds life, but more importantly, she finds actual love.

Downham's book is excellently crafted. It is life-affirming even as it is (I'm sorry to lable it this way, but here goes) a downer because Tessa is palpably sick from page one. And she's not all the way to acceptance in her grief stages, either, so along with sadness you get a few heaping doses of anger. These are the things that make the book read as true, and part of what make it so well-done. If you are looking for excellent writing and story, it's here. If you are looking for a book you can experience as real, that will absorb your attention and remove you from the world you live in, it's here. If you are looking for light-hearted amusement, well, best look elsewhere. book (told in first person) never passes from her p.o.v., so you "experience" her death with her, in shortening paragraphs with lots of white space in between. Before I Die has moments of beauty in it and reads as true (emotionally and factually).

Deadline by Chris Crutcher is about a eighteen-year-old boy named Ben who learns, just as he's about to start his senior year, that he has a rare, incurable form of leukemia and less than a year to live. Because he's 18, Ben manages to swear his doctor to secrecy, which means that for the longest time, Ben's the only one who knows that he's ill. Ben's decision is based on his need to protect others, nothing more. Ben decides to live "balls out". He makes a list of things he'd most like to do before he dies: date Dallas Suzuki (a hot girl), play football, torment his right-wing civics teacher, help the town drunk, get a street names after Malcolm X. Ben seeks not only to live his life, but to make the world a better place for the people he leaves behind in it.

Ben is almost a full year older than his brother, Cody, but they are both in the same grade. Cody's the quarterback, and Ben's a runt; still, he gives football a go. The relationship between Ben and Cody is one of the strong points in this novel. Crutcher tells the story in first person, but unlike Tessa, Ben's a smart-a$$, so his voice is breezier (glib, even, to use Ben's own term), and the fact that he keeps his condition a secret allows him to interact with others as if nothing's wrong (with him). Along the way, Ben learns the secrets of other townspeople, and learns that keeping secrets can have devastating results. Kirkus* knocked it for describing only his fatigue, but really, he describes dream-like visions involving Hey-Soos, a Christ-like figure who offers him guidance, and more. The book doesn't end with Ben's death, but with his legacy (and thinking of it makes me cry all over again).

On the surface, these are the same book: Teen MC is dying of leukemia, makes a list of things to do before they die, dies at or near the end. Both look for love and try to get some living in while they can. These books make an interesting side-by-side study for writers because they prove that the devil is in the details, and that it's not the idea that's original, it's the treatment of the idea. Downham's book ends up being about finding love and making the most of time; Crutcher's is about those things too, but overall, it's about truth.

If you're going for an engaging story with the basic plot line I've described, you can't go wrong with either book. If you're looking for an honest exploration of what it feels like, actually, to be terminally ill (and to die), go for Before I Die. If I had to pick only one to read, however, I'd pick Deadline, because I liked the main character better, and I liked the different and complicated plot threads that Crutcher chose to weave together, which include discussions of politics, incest, child molestation, manic depression and more. I'll take a smart-a$$ over an angstite (is that a word? let's pretend it is) any day. I'm not saying that Deadline is the better book, it's just the way my taste runs. But truly, you can't go wrong with either choice.

*But it was, after all, Kirkus, and the reader seemed to have an axe to grind with Crutcher's politics as well. And really, this is about a kid who was trying to ignore his illness as best he could, so I didn't feel I needed all the details piled on. (If you feel you'd prefer all the awful details, read Before I Die).

This review was taken nearly verbatim from my blog post. Chris Crutcher later emailed me to thank me for it (squee!), and in the email he said that this book lives & dies (no pun intended) on his character's voice/attitude, and that his intention was for the book to be about life instead of death.
#1 - November 04, 2007, 09:56 AM

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I've only read BEFORE i DIE but I so agree with Debby about the prose.
Here is my review of the book posted almost a year ago:
it was from the audio version.

December it was my choice book for my book club - they all cried, but they still love me. They also loved my discussion ?s and convinced me to post them.

After hearing the book, I had to buy it to hold in my hands and re-read sentences and feel the sound of the words while looking at them. I love audio books, but for books like "Before I Die' I missed the visual beauty of the words.

Another book with a similar theme but MG is WAYS TO LIVE FOREVER - another great book that came out about the same time.

I'm going to have a give away for Before I Die on my blog. It's been too long between book contests and this is too great of a book not to share!
#2 - December 11, 2009, 02:38 PM
The Safest Lie in stores now
The End of the Line - VOYA Top Shelf & YALSA Quick Pick
FB/twtr/Tmblr AngelaCerrito


I was motivated to read 'Before I Die' by Downham by one of my friends' blog. It captured my interests when she exclaimed and said, 'The novel is phenomenal.' Love, truth and life were depicted in the story.

#3 - November 02, 2010, 10:20 PM
« Last Edit: November 07, 2010, 10:07 PM by patricia39 »


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