Optimists Die First – Susin Nielsen – Penguin Random House – Published 2 March 2017
Petula has avoided friendship and happiness ever since tragedy struck her family and took her beloved younger sister Maxine. Worse, Petula blames herself. If only she’d kept an eye on her sister, if only she’d sewn the button Maxine choked on better, if only…
Now her anxiety is getting out of control, she is forced to attend the world’s most hopeless art therapy class. But one day, in walks the Bionic Man: a charming, amazingly tall newcomer called Jacob, who is also an amputee. Petula’s ready to freeze him out, just like she did with her former best friend, but when she’s paired with Jacob for a class project, there’s no denying they have brilliant ideas together – ideas like remaking Wuthering Heights with cats.
But Petula and Jacob each have desperately painful secrets in their pasts – and when the truth comes out, there’s no way Petula is ready for it.
Optimists Die First is a mildly depressing book. It has an honest and gritty tone, so realistic of the circumstances in which the characters find themselves. This in-your-face honesty is perfect for the theme of this book – trust, family, and somehow coping with the guilt of mistakes that shake your world. This book also involves an abundance of cats, cat videos, and crafting addictions – you have been warned.
Petula knows death is lurking around every corner. She is a pessimist and she knows her vigilance will keep her alive longer. She wasn’t always like this. She wishes she had been, because then her baby sister might still be alive. She carries the weight of this tragedy, trying to keep her family from fracturing further. She has been assigned to the school’s art therapy, where a miss-matched group of teens are meant to express their fears and troubles through juvenile art projects. But Jacob, a new addition to the group, shakes them up, gives them a boost of creativity, and might even bring them together.
I can totally understand Petula’s fear and desire to control her environment. Who wouldn’t after feeling to blame for her baby sister’s death. Petula has a unique voice. I liked her upfront nature and honesty. I liked watching the development of her relationships with those around her, from her fellow therapy members, parents and ex-best friend to the school principal, and can I note here that I love seeing a positive representation of a principal in YA fiction. I felt for Petula in her family situation, her fear that it was up to her to hold them together.
The art therapy group is a vibrant cast of hurting characters. Their journey through hatred and misunderstanding to a cohesive group is a pleasure to read, bumps and detours included.
Petula and Jacob bond over shared stories of tragedy and cat videos. They make an odd match, the girl who sees death everywhere and in everything and the boy who is optimistic despite everything he has experienced. But Jacob is hiding some big secrets, I’ll say no more here for fear of spoilers, but their romance challenges Petula to engage once again with life.
This honest and heartfelt story of tragedy and mental health is a worthy addition to realistic YA fiction and well worth reading.
The publishers provided an advanced readers copy of this book for reviewing purposes. All opinions are my own.
Category: Young adult fiction.
Themes: Dating and relationships, family, grief, guilt, therapy, siblings, death, high school, friendship, craft, mental health, anxiety.
Reading age guide: Ages 14 and up.
Advisory: Sexual references, implied sex scenes and implied mast*******. Discussion of safe sex. Coarse language, sh**, sl**, bit** . Alcohol use and addiction.
Published: 2 March 2017 by Penguin Random House.
Format: Hardcover, paperback, ebook. 272 pages.