YA Review: Optimists Die First by Susan Nielsen

optimists die first.pngThe Premise: Petula is a lonely teenager, suffering from anxiety after the death of her younger sister. Forced to attend an art therapy class, Petula meets Jacob, an amputee with a sad story of his own. But what is it?

Thoughts: I really enjoyed the first two thirds of Optimists Die First. Despite her acute anxiety and continued grief for her younger sister, Petula is a funny and engaging narrator, choosing a seat in the principal’s office carefully in case of an earthquake and resultant death by hardback books.  It’s obvious that she’s in pain, but her sardonic humour makes her a winning protagonist.

Mr Watley thought for a moment. Then he pointed at a mug on his desk. “Look at that and tell me what you see.”
“A half-empty mug of coffee.”
“I see a half-full mug of coffee.” He smiled triumphantly, like he’d just said something profound.
“And that’s why you’ll die before I do.”

Optimists Die First is not a particularly long book, but there are plenty of richly-drawn characters and intriguing backstory. The background to the death of Petula’s sister is genuinely quite upsetting to read. Petula’s parents mourn their younger daughter in their own ways, with her mother fostering too many cats, which creates further pathos and warm humour. My favourite parts of the book involved Petula’s art therapy group, featuring a bunch of similarly flawed but loveable misfits; the way they all band together to heal is, perhaps, a bit of a cliche, but it’s a lovely one.

If I have a problem with Optimists Die First, it’s the slightly cavalier way in which sex is presented. Without engaging in spoiler-y antics, I’ll say that sex is a plot development that, to me, doesn’t necessarily show the messages a grown-up might like to see about waiting until you’re in a trusting relationship. I’m old; I’m not going to be influenced by this kind of thing, but I’m not entirely on board with treating sex in such a casual way.

In Conclusion: Overall, I really liked this book. It’s deep and tragic, but also very funny. Petula’s brittle narration reminded me of another character in contemporary YA who I loved – Parker from Not If I See You First – and she definitely made Optimists Die First (which, by the way, is possibly my favourite title ever) a memorable and enjoyable read.

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