Review: Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

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Life ahead: Proceed with caution.

Sixteen-year-old Petula De Wilde is anything but wild. A family tragedy has made her shut herself off from the world. Once a crafting fiend with a happy life, Petula now sees danger in everything, from airplanes to ground beef.

The worst part of her week is her comically lame mandatory art therapy class. She has nothing in common with this small band of teenage misfits, except that they all carry their own burden of guilt.

When Jacob joins their ranks, he seems so normal and confident. Petula wants nothing to do with him, or his prosthetic arm. But when they’re forced to collaborate on a unique school project, she slowly opens up, and he inspires her to face her fears.

Until a hidden truth threatens to derail everything.

Rating: 2 Stars

I’ve been concentrating a lot more on reading in the last couple of years, but before I really got into blogging and reading seriously with the intent of blogging about those books I also crafted. I still do (knitting is my thing) on occasion, so when I saw that there was a book that had a cover with a Fair Isle style cover and had a main character that was a big crafter. I thought this sounded like a perfect match.

There were some things that I liked about this book, but it was a serious letdown from what I expected.

I appreciated that Petula and her mother were such big bookworms. Her mother works in a book shop, regularly shares advance reader copies with her daughter, and names all of their cats and foster cats after literary characters. Petula constantly shows shock or exasperation towards Jacob when he mentions a movie or television show that was based on a book, which he inevitably hasn’t read. Apparently he’s not much of a reader and her annoyance at that felt appropriate for a bookworm like her.

Something I did not like, and I noticed other readers having the same issue, is Petula’s anxiety and it’s portrayal within the novel. I understood a lot of her mannerisms in the book, particularly her planning alternate ways home to avoid the construction site, her train of thoughts regarding situations such as plane crashes, etc. However, what I did not like nor appreciate is that her anxiety tended to disappear when Jacob was around. I noticed it really for the first time after they’d been paired up for the creative English project. That whole conversation felt wrong because, as a reader, I could tell that something was off and after reading it again, I realized that it was Petula acting in a way that was completely contrary to how she’d been set up in the preceding chapters. Anxiety is not something that is cured by the presence of a boy, much less one that’s a near complete stranger.

I was especially angry when I read about Petula’s reaction to going to Youth Art Therapy (the mandatory art therapy she attends, nicknamed YART). She was incredibly judgmental, calling those attending it “truly hopeless sad sacks”; a former friend of hers and she dubbed the program “Crafting for Crazies”. That’s dismissive, insulting, and quite rich, considering her own experience with mental illness.

A thing that bugged me was a mention in chapter one. Petula was in art therapy and someone dumped a tube of glitter on her head. Now, this is a little event and has no bearing on the rest of the story, but it bothered me because a) if Petula is going to worry about traffic patterns and construction site accidents in planning her life to be as safe as possible, wouldn’t something you can inhale and that could scratch your throat be of concern? Or that could get in your eye and blind you? and b) glitter is the devil and gets everywhere, how is it she didn’t glitter for the next week?

Another odd bit is the school project that is made to sound like such a big deal in the summary. It is literally over and done with well before the halfway point of the book and it doesn’t have a lot of influence over the rest of the book. It has a small ripple effect, but you’d think, if it’s mentioned in the summary, that it would have more importance than it did.

Conclusion: the writing wasn’t horrible and I think I might even have liked it in another application, but I found that this story wasn’t enjoyable. I found myself not interested in the characters or their backstories, of which there were plenty. There were some good points, like the ones I mentioned above as well as some mention of Internet cat videos (who doesn’t love those?), but in the end this book just wasn’t my cup of tea.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

All pictures, quotes, and videos belong to their respective owners. I use them here solely for the purpose of review and commentary.
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7 thoughts on “Review: Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

  1. That’s a really interesting point that you bring up about Petula’s anxiety going away when Jacob was around. I hadn’t noticed that, but now that you mentioned it, it is quite weird.

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  2. I’ve heard from other readers as well that it’s harmful rep for mental illness (particularly how her anxiety is written as more of a quirk that she can turn on and off, and is ultimately cured by a boy). I’m sorry this was a disappointment! Hopefully your next read lives up to your expectations.

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  3. You made some fantastic points. I didn’t really realize about the glitter part – wasn’t it really early in the book or am I mixing it up? But as you continue on with the novel, she really should have had a much bigger reaction if so. You definitely made me think about this book in a new light. Huh. Great review!

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    1. Thank you! Yes, it was quite early on, the first chapter IIRC, or the prologue. It just felt weird and very out of character for the person that we were told to expect, especially with her supposed mental illnesses.

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  4. I TOTALLY AGREE!! And I’m so glad you mentioned the glitter because I did too haha.😂 I mean, like I have done glitter with a 3yo and it wasn’t even dumped on my head and yet I was STILL shedding glitter for ever afterwards. No really. I keep picking it out of my bed. ugh. GLITTER.

    But yes the anxiety was totally ridiculously handled. People seem to have this idea that if you just love an anxious/mentally ill person enough, they’ll get better. But it is very untrue. Also I didn’t like the flippant way it was written? Like all “lol @ Petula for her anxiety over stupid things”. *sighs* It just felt like it was mocking a condition that really affects people’s lives in huge and often devastating ways. This was definitely a no-go for me too.

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    1. Too true about the glitter! It never goes away when you get it on your skin, imagine it getting into your hair!

      You’re quite right about the flippant attitude. Thinking back on it makes me more annoyed and angry the longer I think about it. Most everyone treated it all as something she’d get over, as some sort of joke that wasn’t real, when it’s a real problem and illness for quite a large number of people. It isn’t funny and seeing it treated that way, not just by characters but by the author, makes me upset.

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