Review: Optimists Die First by Susin NielsenOptimists Die First by Susin Nielsen
Published by Tundra Books on February 21st, 2017
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult
Format: Hardcover
Source: Ottawa Library

Life ahead: Proceed with caution.

Sixteen-year-old Petula De Wilde is anything but wild. A family tragedy has made her shut herself off from the world. Once a crafting fiend with a happy life, Petula now sees danger in everything, from airplanes to ground beef.

The worst part of her week is her comically lame mandatory art therapy class. She has nothing in common with this small band of teenage misfits, except that they all carry their own burden of guilt.

When Jacob joins their ranks, he seems so normal and confident. Petula wants nothing to do with him, or his prosthetic arm. But when they’re forced to collaborate on a unique school project, she slowly opens up, and he inspires her to face her fears.

Until a hidden truth threatens to derail everything.

Every so often, one must read a Young-Adult novel. Especially when there is a cat lady involved, as well as a witty title. Besides, I couldn’t resist Optimists Die First‘s book cover, which is darn awesome, no pun intended.
Okay, maybe intended.

Please don’t leave.

Optimists Die First, Life Ahead: Proceed With Caution is the story of sixteen years old Petula, a former happy and talented teen whose worldview took a wrong turn when tragedy hit her family. She developed an acute feeling of insecurity, and now sees danger in everything: germs, raw food, construction on her way to school… She even keeps newspaper clippings of what could be seen as creative ways of dying in bizarre accidents. Counselling and group therapy haven’t been helping much, but a newcomer at her school is determined to bring some change.

Optimists Die First is a well-executed feel-good novel. The characters are very quirky and likeable, from the cat-lady Mum to the music-nerd Dad to, even, the school principal, a cool guy who likes pets and crafts and even his students. It’s hard to not feel sympathy for the kids in therapy with Petula, considering their respective trauma and how they are, mostly, just really kind and helpful to one another. Everybody is nice in this book, as if Life was the only big B*, which is somewhat simplistic but does feel relaxing.

I appreciated the way trauma was treated in this book. Nielsen does a good job showing how a nice person can act awful due to grief or extreme sadness. It was a good point to show that inappropriate counselling or forced group therapy won’t do much help, whereas genuine support from people with similar experience will. I really liked how the teens get creative to help one another to deal with their trauma.

On the other hand, Optimists Die First‘s story was very average. First, the plot didn’t take off before the half mark. The beginning was slow and, away from Petula’s flashbacks, not very original. Also, the story features a predictable romance that sounds incredibly hurried and unromantic. Some of Petula’s behaviour felt like a bad case of tantrum, which is a bit late considering she’s 16.

Finally, the book was overall rather funny—I mean funny on purpose—even though the main theme was paranoia, anxiety and grief… and although I enjoy a good laugh, the lightness of it all felt out of place. I like a feel-good book yet Optimists Die First pushed it too far, and it started to feel naive and unrealistic…

Or maybe optimistic, ironically?