Title: Optimists Die First
Author: Susin Nielson
Publisher: Andersen Press
UK Release Date: 2nd March 2017
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult, Romance, Mental Health
Source: Borrowed from a friend
Petula has avoided friendship and happiness ever since tragedy struck her family and took her beloved younger sister Maxine. Worse, Petula blames herself. If only she’d kept an eye on her sister, if only she’d sewn the button Maxine choked on better, if only…
Now her anxiety is getting out of control, she is forced to attend the world’s most hopeless art therapy class. But one day, in walks the Bionic Man: a charming, amazingly tall newcomer called Jacob, who is also an amputee. Petula’s ready to freeze him out, just like she did with her former best friend, but when she’s paired with Jacob for a class project, there’s no denying they have brilliant ideas together – ideas like remaking Wuthering Heights with cats.
But Petula and Jacob each have desperately painful secrets in their pasts – and when the truth comes out, there’s no way Petula is ready for it.
When it came to reading this book, I was really excited, as I am a huge fan of contemporary YA novels and had not been reading enough of them to satisfy me. I’d also really enjoyed Susin Nielsen’s We Are All Made of Molecules, so I was pretty sure this was going to be a winner for me. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped to, but there were still some elements which I liked nonetheless.
For a start, I really liked how diverse the book was, in particular Petula’s support group. There was Jacob, an amputee, and Petula, who had anxiety, along with a selection of other teenagers, who were diverse in terms of sexuality, background, and mental health. It was so lovely to have such a diverse group of people in the book! They featured fairly regularly too, and each of them got focused on slightly more at times – I liked getting to see a bit more of these other characters that Nielsen had created. The group also developed over time, and I thought their character arcs were great, even though they were somewhat minor in comparison to the other characters.
I also liked how unique the ideas in this book were. You may have seen a fair amount of discussion on Maximum Pop Books recently(ish) about recreating Wuthering Heights with cats, and this was an element of this book. There were so many elements of this book that I thought were very original; not only did they recreate Wuthering Heights with cats for a school project, but there were also lots of cats in general, some bizarre crafts, mini films, and the whole optimists-versus-pessimists thing, which was very fun to explore throughout the book.
That being said, there was an element which I didn’t find as unique and original, and that was the romance between Petula and Jacob. As you can see on the cover of this book, the tag line is ‘A love story for cynics’, so obviously there was going to be some romance in the plot. It could have worked really well, but in my opinion I thought that it was just too unrealistic to work out. Things moved too fast, and she was so preoccupied with him at other times – it really didn’t work for me. I also struggled to connect with Petula in general, and not only with her fast-moving feelings for Jacob. She was interesting for sure, but I didn’t like her much.
Overall, it was definitely a cute and quick read, which stands out because of its diversity and interesting content. However, I disliked the romance and the protagonist too much for me to truly love this book.