Review: Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen
Source: ARC courtesy of Susin Nielsen and Tundra Books/Penguin Random House Canada. Thank you!
Expected publication: February 21, 2017 by Tundra Books
Petula’s funny, and a crafting genius, but no social star at high school, and it doesn’t help that she’s isolated herself after her adored toddler sister died. Petula feels responsible for this death, though her parents say it was a tragic accident. No one’s fault. Now, Petula sees danger everywhere: every activity and every bite of food could kill you. Then a new boy, Jacob, joins Petula’s group in the school’s lame art therapy program; he has a prosthetic arm and darkness behind his sunny surface. Petula and Jacob become friends, then, something more. But a secret behind why he’s in the group could derail them.
A heartbreaking yet humorous first YA from award-winning author Susin Nielsen, Optimists Die First continues Susin’s tradition of creating memorable characters and genre-bending narratives.
Governor General Award winning author Susin Nielsen has written some of my favourite children’s titles: Word Nerd, Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom, We Are All Made of Molecules, and last, but absolutely not least, The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen. Nielsen’s novels are ones I recommend time and again to kids (and their caregivers) in my work as a children’s librarian, and I have also often mentioned Nielsen’s work in top ten lit lists. So, needless to say, as soon as I saw/read/heard about a new book from the author- a young adult debut, no less- I was there. And I have been an extremely lucky reader indeed to have had the opportunity to read Nielsen’s already multi-starred (!) YA debut Optimists Die First.
In Optimists Die First, we follow the first-person narrative of Petula De Wilde. Petula is, as other protagonists of Nielsen’s novels, imminently likable, wonderful and slightly (or intensely) hurt in some way. Whether working through or surviving family tragedy, loss, life-change…Nielsen’s characters might be some of the most tenacious, stubborn, lovely, and brave kids or teens you will meet. Here, we have Petula: shaken to her core, reshaped since a horrifying and fatal accident forever altered her and her family. Now constantly fearful, experiencing debilitating panic and anxiety, and exhibiting compulsive behavior, Petula is forced to attend an art therapy group for emotional troubled kids as well as talks with her watery-eyed but exceedingly patient and kind principal. Through circuitous circumstances, a new student at her school- who Petula has nicknamed Bionic Man- Jacob, joins her art therapy program and takes an interest in getting to know her.
Jacob, as we learn, is also suffering- and more intensely than Petula realizes. He and Petula are both dealing with tremendous scars of aftermath, regret and guilt; but once their tentative connection in and out of art therapy begins, it grows into something tangible. Nielsen writess Petula and Jacob’s relationship as such a beautifully aching, fluttery, strange and hazy-happy first-love; it sincere, genuine, and unforced, and something that clicks naturally and necessarily (as we see) with the arc of each character’s story. Lest you wonder whether Nielsen has taken the route of ‘troubled teens meet, fall in love and quickly heal’ (which can be grating and oft-abundant in YA…), I can assure you that it is not the case. The author works Petula and Jacob’s relationship from the very beginning as something that occurs within and among the chaos of their internal voices and immediate surroundings, which means that while Petula’s psychological traumas about her family and school life might ebb and flow, they simply do not heal due to first-love (Jacob does not magically heal, either). I do not want to give away too much more of the story’s intricacies here, as I hope for readers to get to experience it for themselves…but I will say that Optimists Die First offers some terrifically surprising and wonderfully weird moments à la Breakfast Club, intense heartache and rawness (think Judy Blume), as well as loveliness mixed with hope and possibility- all in Nielsen’s incredible style.
Overall, Optimists Die First is a gorgeously written, funny and heart-rending read. As with Henry K. Larsen, my reading experience with Optimists Die First was one ranging from belly laughter to tears and everything in-between. Nielsen takes a sensitive and thoughtful approach to covering serious, raw subject matters in all of her novels and that consideration always comes forth in her writing- this novel is another great example of that. I cannot recommend Nielsen’s novels enough, and would highly encourage readers new to Nielsen to check her books out. I loved meeting and spending time with Petula, her family, and Jacob, and I hope you get the chance to as well.
I received a copy of this title courtesy of the author and publisher. All opinions and comments are my own.