Book Review: Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

Title: Optimists Die First

Author: Susin Nielsen

Genre: YA Realistic Fiction

Number of Pages: 240

Rating: A

Recommended?: Yes


Optimists Die First is a lovely, bittersweet book about a girl who develops severe anxiety after the accidental death of her younger sister. Petula is an arts and crafts nut from a close, quirky family when a careless mistake changes her life forever. She makes a Where the Wild Things Are wolf suit for her sister Maxine and Maxine chokes to death on a button.

Afterwards, Petula abandons the pastimes she used to enjoy and becomes obsessed with freak accidents and fatal disasters. Her mom deals with her grief by adopting eighty-four gazillion rescue cats, creating further tension between her and her husband. Petula is eventually forced to attend art therapy with some other ‘troubled kids’ and when she meets Jacob, a movie buff with an artificial limb, she is prickly and unresponsive to his charms.

He gradually draws her out of her isolated bubble and she starts to warm up to the other art therapy kids too. Petula has an enormous amount of guilt over Maxine’s death and doesn’t think she deserves to be happy. Jacob turns out to have his own secrets which threaten to destroy their newfound relationship.

Susin Nielsen has quickly become one of my favorite young adult authors. This might seem like your typical ‘teenagers with problems fall in love’ story but it’s affecting combination of hopefulness and tragedy and the thoroughly believable characters make it feel different from other stories. I really liked We Are All Made of Molecules and Tremendous Things but this might be my favorite book by her so far.

I liked that there really weren’t any ‘bad guys.’ Even the girl with the bad attitude at art therapy that picked on Petula turned out to have a human side. Jacob and Petula’s relationship definitely didn’t feel like a big ‘love conquers all’-type thing, even though they helped and supported each other. I also liked how romance wasn’t really the focus of the book. Petula’s relationship with her family and her own self-image was just as important. There’s also a Wuthering Heights reenactment with cats, which should be a prerequisite in any book. I will read anything this author writes.

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