Title: Optimists Die First
Author: Susin Nielsen
Published by: Andersen Press
Publication date: 2nd March 2017
Pages: 272, paperback
Genre: young adult, contemporary, mental health, romance
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.
I read this book about a week ago as part of my WiFi-less Readathon, and I did it in almost one sitting! I’ve been itching to read it for a very long time, and was delighted to finally have the chance.
Starting with the title: I absolutely love it. I didn’t really think about it at first, but when I did my first thought was ooh that’s so funny. Optimists Die First, in my opinion at least, is a really intriguing title (also, my head teacher recently gave a weirdly motivational speech on why it’s logical to be optimistic, so that was also fresh in my mind). But my point about the title is more that it is relevant. Something that often irritates me is when YA novels are given quirky, charming titles which then turn out to have no relevance to the story; Optimists Die First was full of Petula’s random analogies of optimism and pessimism – it was clearly a huge theme. Which really pleased me.
I thought Petula was a very real character. Her mental well-being fluctuated throughout the novel, as various positive and negative events occurred. She wasn’t particularly forgiving, and if she was it wouldn’t have fitted her character. In fact, I found her wariness quite refreshing, compared to many other YA protagonists. Yet despite her sometimes judgmental disposition, I thought she was clearly a very lovely, caring character.
At a first glance, this book seems like a usual contemporary, YA romance, but it is very much focused on mental health. And not just Petula’s, but Koula’s, Ivan’s Jacob’s and Alonzo’s too. Although, I’m not 100% sure how I felt about all the jokes made about Petula’s obsessive-compulsive behaviours (especially from Koula). Mental-health jokes among friends suffering from mental health issues is a thing. I suppose it helped to make the reader and the characters aware of Petula’s problem. But at times I wasn’t whether I found the tone light-hearted or offhand. But anyway, I really liked watching all of these characters (with the help of Betty!) slowly come together and start to heal as a group.
Ultimately, at the end Petula faces her anxieties, and there’s a lot of focus on her helping Jacob face his. This was a very interesting end to the novel – both members of the relationship benefited and developed throughout the book due to circumstances and each other.
This story was so funny and so creative. There were so many details that I found cute beyond belief – the cats, the arts and crafts. I also quite liked how there was no grand adventure (just a hint of one at the end). I would love to hear more of Jacob’s story, and I think there’s a whole other book that could be written about his life. The same could probably be said for all the others from the YART group too – and I would read every single one.
This book had me smiling, laughing and despairing the whole way through. It is definitely one of the loveliest contemporary YAs I have read in a while, in terms of the romance, friendship and family aspects, and I thought it conveyed a really important message regarding mental health.