Optimists Die First is a YA novel by Susin Nielsen which follows a cynical teenage girl, Petula, who suffers from grief over her dead sister and, as a result, believes death is around every corner. This cynicism, she believes, is a good thing and will prevent an early death for herself. Petula goes to an art therapy class, ‘YART’, an hour a week, and the novel begins with her interaction with a new boy at school, Jacob, who later joins this class.
The presence of this new boy brings the whole group together, as they go for coffee and collaborate on personalised short films for each of the members, helping them with their grief and in hope that it helps with their relationships with the people they’ve hurt, or been hurt by, and also adds insight into their lives for the audience.
The characters in the novel are diverse, with different races and sexualities, and, as it’s focused within a therapy group and the characters are varied, none of them feel like token characters to tick a box, which can only be a plus. The characters all have atypical mental states, but they’ve not presented in the constant doom and gloom we usually see, but rather something harboured inside, which I personally find more realistic. Matters such as drug abuse, alcoholism, bad family dynamics and suicide are included in the book, but not in detail, meaning it still allows to be a light read.
Cliches are present in the book, however, and if you were to make assumptions on the plot after the first few chapters, they’d most likely come to pass. Although I tend to not mind this so much, if this is a pet peeve of yours, you may want to tread with caution. On the other hand, it’s short book and an easy read, so isn’t really meant for serious reading, so if you’re looking for something simple, this would be a good choice.
Whilst containing cliches, it tend to be on this side of realistic. Not everything works out, people can’t forgive that easily, nor forget, and trust is incredibly hard to regain, especially if that person was close and had a particularly personal in-look onto your life. Although you could argue that five people in these scenarios are unlikely to meet, it is set within a school therapy group, rather than a bunch of friends, so it does have a realistic setting at least.
If you’ve read some of my book reviews before you’d probably know that I think morals or take-away thoughts are a near imperative for a good book, and Optimists Die First has a number of these. There’s a lot on forgiveness and opening up, and that most of the time it’s good people making one bad decision, rather than a bad person. The characters help each other through their guilt and Petula, the protagonist, overcomes her own problems, with the novel ending on a positive note. I think these messages, although basic, are important, and I thoroughly enjoy how Nielsen has done this.
Despite not being an emotional roller-coaster or having me at the edge of my seat, I did care for the characters whilst I was reading the book. There aren’t many minor characters which meant that each one the protagonist interacted it was more than a surface level background feature. Petula has an impression of the members of her group at first, which slowly changes throughout the novel, mirroring our own experiences, so the reader changes opinion with her. She develops throughout the novel, and the others also do, but to a lesser degree.
Optimists Die First is a simple book, but that doesn’t take its charm away. I would recommend it for anyone wanting an easy, relaxing read or one they can get through in a few hours. If you’ve read it, or anything else by the author, let me know in the comments.
Rating system: 1 = bad, 2 = okay/decent, 3 = good, 4 = very good, 5 = wow