May 12, 2017

Optimists Die First

Written by Susin Nielsen
Tundra Books
240 pp.
Ages 12+
February 2017

Reviewed from audiobook
Read by Julia Whelan
Listening Library
4 hr 58 min

Apparently optimists do die first.  By ten years.  Pessimists, it seems, are more realistic because they see eventualities the oblivious optimists ignore.  No wonder Petula De Wilde, 16, is obsessed with all the circumstances that can take and have taken peoples’ lives before expected.  Her obsession about all things dangerous has her keeping a scrapbook of news stories of deaths from falling debris at construction sites, a faulty roller coaster or elevator, and even deadly paper cuts, leaving her fearful of everything from double-dipping eaters, public washrooms, biological warfare, and airplanes.  This since the death of her baby sister Maxine two years earlier, a death for which Petula blames herself.  Now she can’t keep herself safe enough.

In lieu of counselling, Petula attends YART, Youth Art Therapy, along with recently out-of-the-closet Alonzo, alcoholic Koula, angry, grief-stricken Ivan and new guy Jacob Cohen, the guy with the bionic arm.  Under the instruction of therapist Betty, the group undertakes a series of juvenile projects.  But, after Petula and the aspiring film director Jacob prepare a cat adaptation of Wuthering Heights (to rave reviews, except from their English teacher), the group convinces Betty to let them organize their own projects, more relevant to their needs and issues.

Amidst their YART sessions, Petula’s phobic life style, overwhelming guilt, regrets over falling out with former BFF and crafting buddy Rachel, and a disintegrating family, Petula and Jacob fall in love.  But Jacob only reveals a few scenes from his life, and apparently a lot of it is fiction, jeopardizing his relationship with Petula and the other members of YART.  Whether they can find a way to heal their own guilts and allow another into their worlds is only up to Susin Nielsen, director of fine stories and creator of characters more real than those we encounter every day.

If you’re familiar with Susin Nielsen’s earlier works (Word Nerd; Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom; The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen; and We Are All Made of Molecules)–and if you’re not, go out right now, rush, get them and read them–you’ll know the power of her writing to blend stories of families in transition with heavy issues like death, divorce and homophobia, while still leaving room for humour and romantic love.  Optimists Die First is a package of inspiritment (even from the tragedies) that serves to entertain because of Susin Nielsen’s diverse characters, human and cat, subplots of secrets and shames, and reassurance of a close that’s more a beginning than an end.
But that’s life, I guess. We know we can’t do a rewrite.  We can’t undo what’s been done, or control what’s coming next.   
All we can do is hope for the best.
Just stick to the bright side (away from falling construction debris) and you’ll be just fine.  I’m positive.


Author Susin Nielsen speaks about Optimists Die First in a brief video on YouTube and is accompanied by her cat who is not named Moominmamma, Anne of Green Gables, Ferdinand, Stuart Little, Stanley, Alice or Pippi.

Susin Nielsen talks all things 'Optimists Die First' avec cat
Uploaded by Maximum Pop! Books on March 13, 2017 to YouTube.

1 comment:

  1. Love the title! Sounds like a wonderful story with something for everyone. Especially cat lovers. Enjoyed the video as well. Well done, Susan.