Author: Susan Nielsen
Publisher: Andersen Press
Well, when you consider yourself a cynic and your boyfriend gives you a book called Optimists Die First you are hooked without even reading the title or the blurb. I didn’t read the blurb at all; I just started reading. I enjoyed this book. I wouldn’t say that it is the best- written book that I have read, but it is an enjoyable read with great characters.
The main character Petula is eccentric, likeable and funny. Petula is still reeling from the death of her little sister, Maxine. Sixteen old Petula blames herself for her sister’s death and as a result now realises that freak accidents can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Petula now lives her life on high-alert and is always fearful of bad things happening and as a result, she has developed a wide range of fears (though, to be perfectly honest I thought some of her worries were quite rational).
Petula even has a list of lessons that she learnt from her sister’s death.
Life is not fair. Tragedy can strike when you least expect it. Always expect the worst. That way, you might stand a chance of protecting yourself and the ones you love.
You would think from that list that this was going to a book with no light or humour but even when Petula is at her most cynical Nielsen writes her with warmth and humour. I also think that if you are an introvert, you will be drawn to Petula and her eccentric ways. Who hasn’t felt this way (as an introvert) when the teacher announces that the assignment will be completed in pairs.
My skin felt clammy. My heart started pounding. Pairs were for the socially adept. I would have to talk to Mr Watley. Get an exemption, for medical reasons. He could write me a note. No longer plays well with others.
It is the characters that make this book. Susin Nielsen writes flawed, loveable characters very well. Petula is forced to attend a group art-therapy course for emotionally, disturbed teens and this is where we are introduced to a supporting cast of characters. What I love the most about this book (at the beginning) is that the kids who attend group therapy aren’t being helped by therapy. They are resentful and are raging against the system. Of course, it the friendships that they form that helps them to heal.
In the beginning, the group show a lot of anger and disinterest towards each other, then enters Jacob. Jacob is charismatic and optimistic and he somehow manages to draw this group of misfits together and make them a group of friends. Jacob takes a particular interest in Petula and he becomes determined to make her live life because he feels that she has stopped living.
There are a lot of heavy themes in this book – death of a child, drink-driving, car accidents, drug use and alcoholism but despite these heavy themes, the book remains light-hearted with a cast of endearing characters.
Another aspect of the book that I loved was all the pop culture references. There are lots of book, movie and music references. Nielsen weaves these references into the story in quite a simple and easy way.
Good God. ‘Harriet the Spy is only the best kids’ book ever written. Louise Fitzhugh gave the world a whole new type of female protagonist. One that was feisty and opinionated and sometimes quite mean.’
Even though I do feel that the book is quite averagely written. I was drawn to Petula. I saw a lot of myself in Petula and this is why I liked the book because I was so connected to the character of Petula.
‘Loads of reasons. For one thing, he doesn’t read. This speaks of poor moral fibre and probably poor intellect.’
Optimists Die First is heart-warming, empathetic and often hilarious – a delightful read.