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Optimists Die First - Susin Nielsen

by Catherine Van Bergen (follow)
Fiction (373)      Young Adult (98)      Humour (83)      Grief (10)      Love (5)      Anxiety (2)     

It has been over two years since her family suffered a tragic accident, and since then, 16-year-old Petula De Wilde has been living a life of paranoia, anxiety and fear. She is convinced that danger and death lurk around every corner- if not for her, then for the misguided, oblivious people around her. She is wary around construction sites, is always on the lookout for suspicious characters, and ensures that her nearest and dearest always have a reflector vest or rape whistle handy. Most people think she is crazy and humour her but Petula is adamant that her precautions could mean the difference between life and death and insists that pessimists are more realistic, and, unlike optimists, see the danger before it’s too late.

As a way of coping with her issues, Petula is forced to attend a school group named Youth Art Therapy (YART), along with several other troubled students. Each have their own problems that they are trying to dealing with and while they are all struggling, they try to keep mostly to themselves. That is, until a new student turns up and starts to attend the group. Jacob Cohen is tall, handsome and confident, and he has troubles of his own. He also has a bionic arm, and regardless of his openness, is quite a mystery. With his easy-going nature, he soon has the group united and (relatively) friendly with one another. Despite her misgivings, Petula can’t deny the attraction between them, and soon the pair embark in a friendship that leads to romance. But is this newfound optimism for life going to be Petula’s downfall? Will Jacob’s positive influence be the cross that brings her down? Or will she see that sometimes risks are made to be taken?

This is a wonderfully written story that readers will be sure to devour. Petula’s methods of coping with her issues are eccentric but credible- she withdraws from her closest friend Rachel because it hurts to be near her, and abandons her much-loved crafting because it reminds her of when she used to be happy- a feeling she doesn’t feel she deserves to have anymore. She also partly blames her crafting on her loss, so for this reason, is hesitant to continue with it. Her parents also have their own coping mechanisms- her mother, who volunteers at a cat shelter, can’t help but bring home a stray or two each time, so their home is full of cats. Her father stays at work late and avoids spending much time with his family. With this broken way of living, Jacob’s arrival in Petula’s life eases some of the tension and brings a sense of calm. His arrival also encourages the rest of the students at YART to form a close friendship and help each other deal with their issues, in their own ways.

Each of the characters in this novel are well-rounded and interesting. Petula’s banter with the school principal is sweet and reminds us that help can come in many forms. Likewise, her unique friendships with the other YART students, and especially Jacob, show that even though she may feel pessimistic, Petula still has a lot of hope within her. Jacob’s secret story is heartbreaking but difficult, and readers may be torn about their feelings towards him when they find out the truth (just like Petula is). But, as with the others, his way of coping is just as understandable.

While this novel deals with issues of grief, understanding and that pesky thing called optimism, it also covers the importance of love and acceptance, and the many forms that all of these feelings take. This is a fantastic novel- I think the title would be perfect for a tongue-in-cheek motivational book- and is well-worth reading for a humorous yet meaningful look at a pessimists view on the world.

Rating: 4.5/5
Published: March 2017

#Young Adult
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