Wednesday, October 24, 2007

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-ass, 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-ass 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).

To quote one of my favorite movies, The Great Race, "PUSH THE BUTTON, MAX!"

Check out the snowflakes for the Robert's Snow auction being featured today, which you can find listed at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Jules and Eisha have also posted an ongoing list of blog posts thus far featuring snowflakes and the artists who created them. While you're there, check out Jules and Eisha's other content. Today, for instance, they interview Sheila Ruth, the force behind Wands and Worlds, the coordinator for the Science Fiction & Fantasy category at the CYBILS, and an all-around smart lady.


Disco Mermaids said...

Hi Kelly!

While I've been drowning my sorrows in George Clooney movies lately because my WIP that I've spent the last year researching/writing/obsessing over has this SAME EXACT premise (why did I think this was such an original idea??), I feel better after reading your post for several reasons.

I broke down and read both books this week and I agree with your reviews completely. Everything you said was dead-on. No pun intended, sorry!

What struck me most is that you said these are fundamentally the same book, but we take something different away from each. It made me realize that all is not lost. I can still finish my book and, although the basic idea isn't completely original, spin it in a new way. Though the elements of dying young, living it up, finding love are the same, it truly is a different story.

At least that's what I'm telling myself. Thanks for listening!


Kelly Fineman said...

Eve: You may want to consider having them die from something that isn't leukemia. A brain tumor or pancreatic cancer or something, but not leukemia.

But your story will be different, even if your character has leukemia, just the way that these two are completely different (although exactly the same on the surface).

Disco Mermaids said...

Thanks, Kelly!

I agree. And, no, my MC isn't dying of Leukemia, but rather something strange and rare that hopefully has not been written about before this.

You are so right.