‘Optimists Die First’ – Susin Nielsen

I loved the warmth and honesty of ‘We Are All Made of Molecules’, so I was looking forward to reading this when I was approved for an advance copy by NetGalley.

The story focuses on sixteen year old Petula, a young girl struggling to live with the guilt she feels after the death of her younger sister. Ever since this awful event, we learn that Petula has distanced herself from friends and family, and done all she can to alienate herself from everything that made her who she was prior to Maxine’s death. As with Nielsen’s previous book we focus on a family in crisis, but here the journey along this path does – on occasion – feel a little forced.

What happened is revealed slowly, so at first Petula’s anxieties seem a little unexpected. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they are depicted unsympathetically, but at first it almost seems as if she is trying very hard to make us see her as quirky rather than someone trying to come to terms with a major loss.

I liked the honest way in which Nielsen shows how Petula’s life has been affected by what happened. She is not coping, but her resilience is evident in the way she tries to help her parents and the rather off-beat approach she takes to her art therapy classes. When newcomer Jacob is paired with her for a school project she lets him in, opening herself up to the possibility of being hurt. While there was a rather obvious romance here, I think it was a brave step to show how Petula, Jacob and the other characters deal with their friendships. Nothing is quite what we expect here, and this will definitely be a book that appeals to younger readers.