________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 23. . . February 24, 2017


Optimists Die First.

Susin Nielsen.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2017.
226 pp., hardcover & eBook, $21.99 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-77049-782-5 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-77049-784-9 (eBook).

Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.

Review by Joan Marshall.

**** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



“I’m not a fatalist. I’m a pessimist. There’s a difference.”

“Why are you a pessimist?”

“It’s just common sense. You’ve heard about Darwin’s theory of evolution? Survival of the fittest? The pessimists were the fittest. They were the ones who were wary of neighboring tribes, or cute little lion cubs. They knew the cute lion cubs’ mother was nearby. The optimists were like, ‘Here, kitty, kitty.’ Their optimism literally killed them.”

“But the optimists were happier, surely.”

“Maybe. But at what cost? Pessimists live longer lives.”

“Smaller lives.”

“Safer lives.”

Jacob indicated the scrapbook.“This isn’t a reflection of reality. You must have to dig deep to uncover these stories.”

“That’s the thing. I don’t. Tragedies like this happen every day. It
is reality.”

He shook his head, unconvinced. “Okay, but why keep a record?”

I struggled to explain. “It reminds me to be vigilant. And also…it makes me feel like I’m not so alone.” I felt tears sting my eyes.
No. Nonononono. I will not cry in front of him. I pointed at one of the articles, working hard to steady my voice. That grandma. Her dogs killed her grandchild. How does she live with that? And that mom who let her seven-year-old ride the roller coaster. She’ll never forgive herself.”

“It wasn’t her fault.”

“Wasn’t it? Maybe, if she’d done her research, she wouldn’t have let him on that rickety old thing. Maybe he’d still be at home, playing with Legos.”

“Have you always seen the world this way?”



Petula, 16, is living with the overwhelming guilt of her three-year-old sister’s death. If only she hadn’t sewed buttons on the costume she knitted for Maxine. Then, no doubt, Maxine wouldn’t have choked to death. As her loving parents’ marriage disintegrates in front of her eyes, Petula hangs on by her fingernails, her life revolving around pessimistic thoughts and OCD responses to daily living. She even strikes out against her best friend Rachel because Rachel’s little brother, the same age as Maxine, is still alive. Petula desperately wants to re-unite with Rachel, longing for their easy-going friendship and their love of crafts, but she just can’t do it. When amputee Jacob with his robotic arm and hand joins her school support group, Petula finds herself slowly but surely falling in love with him as he draws her into a more courageous outlook and provides a calm, strong presence for the other Youth Art Therapy members. But Jacob and his family are hiding a big secret about the accident that destroyed Jacob’s arm: it was Jacob’s drunk driving that caused his disability, left one friend a paraplegic and killed another friend, back in Toronto. As a stunned Petula finds out Jacob’s true story, her parents decide to separate, and her life once again looks completely untenable. But then Rachel drags her back to school where the YART members insist on forgiving Jacob, and the school principal has Petula deliver Jacob’s homework. Petula and Jacob reconcile, and, with Jacob’s help, Petula is able to get on the airplane to visit his grandparents in Toronto so Jacob can meet with the boys and the families whose lives he has so damaged.

     Petula is a compelling character whose grief, fears and panic attacks are a heavy load to shoulder. However, her self-deprecating wit is laugh-out-loud funny and her devious manipulation of the school principal admirable, while his fortitude and persistence to keep Petula well remind the reader of the strength of the school system’s resources. Jacob is the steady, older teen whose clever, compassionate ideas are the catalyst to change. His bouts of depression remind readers that tragedies take time to process. Even the YART leader Betty, reviled at first because she treats the members like younger children, changes her behaviour and encourages the group towards more adult activities that are so much fun that the group grows exponentially. YART members Alonzo, Koula and Ivan move from being mired in grief, unable to move forward, to naming and honouring their troubles (rejection by parents when you come out, addiction, death of a mother). Gradually, they come together to be friends and supporters of each other. Petula’s haggard parents sadly cannot lean on each other over the death of their daughter and decide that they will survive better if they live apart. But their love of Petula is unconditional.

     The unashamedly Canadian Vancouver setting enriches the story, but high school students all over North America will sigh with recognition as they immerse themselves in this present day high school setting with up-to-date technology. Dialogue is typical of the age group, smart, witty and amusing. Nielsen really captures the tone of this age group. Conversations show character development and advance the plot, with no telling, which creates a good pace and draws the reader quickly through the book.

     Themes of grief, friendship, mental illness, first love and tender first sex, taking action to express grief and move forward in life, all shine forth in Optimists Die First and will leave the intended reader very satisfied.

Highly Recommended.

Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.

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