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Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

Optimists Die First

by Susin Nielsen

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I didn't really know anything about this book when I received it from the Library Thing Early Reviewer program. Despite being double the protagonists age, I saw aspects of my teenage self in her quite a few times.

Like the protagonist, Petula, I also lost a sibling to a stupid freak accident as a teenager and I also struggle with anxiety and depression. I found myself relating heavily to Petula's anxiety-ridden habits, her avoidance of the people and things she used to love, her inability to connect in the ways she used to. The sides of grief that you don't often see in media.

The Art Therapy group that Petula goes to was one of my favourite parts. Though none of the kids in it truly want to be there or even like each other, they're all struggling with issues that set them apart from their peers. At first, Petula isn't able to connect with them, but as Jacob befriends them all, each group member begins to find it easier to relate to the others, to cope with their own traumas and issues. The members of the art therapy group stand out, unique in their characterization even without major focus.

I've seen some complaints in reviews that other readers didn't like the tone of the book or didn't like that Petula's relationship with Jacob "cured" her anxiety. I'm usually the first to call these things out but I didn't find them egregious errors in Optimists Die First. I liked the tone a lot; grief is a nebulous, difficult experience and there are moments of levity within the tsunami of anger and sadness. Likewise, I didn't feel that there was some magical boyfriend fix for the way Petula's grief made her feel, in the same way Petula didn't heal the overwhelming guilt felt by Jacob. Having someone who is able to comprehend aspects of your own trauma is a large part of recovery after the death of a loved one, and I think Optimists Die First showed Petula managing a lot of that on her own, or with the help of her friends.

Optimists Die First is small in scope, its focus tight on Petula's world, but manages to have a lot to say about loss and grieving. The moments of levity keep the story from dragging or being too depressing despite the heavy subject matter. ( )
  xaverie | Jun 28, 2017 |
This novel is realistic fiction and is by the author of We are all Made of Molecules.

Petula believes that optimist die first, so she is happily a pessimist living her life prepared for disaster. She has a notebook of bizarre deaths, which further proves her idea that preparation is important. This obsession began when her sister Maxine died. Maxine was supposed to take a nap but choked on a button off her outfit that Petula had knitted. She choked and died. Subsequently, Petula feels responsible and wants to be prepared for the next disaster. Her principal gets her into therapy--Art Therapy. One day the bionic man, soon to be called Jacob, shows up.

The therapy group has never been particularly close and hate attending because the facilitator expects them to do childish therapy even though they are high school students. Jacob brings them together by getting to know them. He gets all of them to talk about their lives, but he doesn’t tell about his own. He really likes Petula and pushes himself into her life, turning her life around. He challenges her to face her fears. They end up doing a group project together, making a video of Wuthering Heights. Jacob is very talented and the therapy group start doing videos as their therapy.

Due to the death of Maxine, Petula’s family has fallen apart. Petula spends much of her time making life at home pleasant for mom and dad. She cleans up cat poop from the increasing number of cats living in their home; she does laundry; she cleans up the house. As Jacob has her try new things, Petula begins to realize life cannot be planned. She finds love with Jacob and the challenge of dealing with lies, truth, and reality.

There is mature content, so remember to choose books that won’t get you in conflict with your parents. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel because the characters are so interesting. The truths that are discovered are very real to our lives. It’s a fairly short book and very engaging. ( )
  acargile | Jun 22, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Following the accidental death of her baby sister, sixteen-year-old Petula, feeling that she is responsible, slips into a depression. Obsessed with safety and bizarre accidents, she withdraws from her friends and the activities which she used to enjoy. Her only escape is a special arts therapy class where she bonds with a eclectic group of students, including Jacob - a new boy with secrets of his own that he is trying to battle. Together Petula and Jacob begin to heal. This is a well-written, very quick read. Highly recommended for young people dealing with guilt and depression issues. ( )
  SheilaCornelisse | Jun 19, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I received a hardcover copy compliments of LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program and appreciated the opportunity.

Optimists Die First shares the fictional story of Petula De Wilde, a Canadian teen who is plagued with anxiety and finds herself in group therapy. It is a humorous and sincere portrayal of the respective tragedies faced by her and her peers. Each character holds their own unique and quirky personalities and together they represent resilience and hopefulness. It is modern and applicable to the adolescent struggles of today.

This is the second book that I have read by author Susan Nielsen and I continue to enjoy her writing, her sense of humour and her keen sense of what it means to be a young person in this hectic world- she truly "gets it". 4/5 stars and recommend to teens and adult readers. ( )
  WLR11 | Jun 10, 2017 |
Petula De Wilde is terrified of accidents. Anything could happen. Freak accidents occur everyday, so she will minimize her risk as much as possible no matter how much people tease her. Her family is torn apart and unrecognizeable since her little sister died due to a freak accident that she blames herself for. After counselling at school failed disastrously, she has to go to art therapy led by a woman who would rather work with elementary age kids. Then a very tall boy walks in with a prosthetic arm named Jacob and her whole life changes.

While I don't like the cliche a boy changes a girl's life thing, Optimists Die First is adept at dealing with grief, anxiety, and making amends. I've heard some criticism about the portrayal of Petula's anxiety, but it is dismissed as trivial by other people. To Petula, it's very real and very serious that she do everything she can to avoid fatal accidents. She has pushed everyone in her life away and opted to wallow in guilt and sorrow while her family reals from the loss and copes in their own ways. Her mother collects needy cats to take care of and her father throws himself into work. No one acknowledges each other's pain, too busy feeling their own. When Jacob walks in, they are forced to work together and both hate it at first. Their romance is sweet and develops organically over time. Birth control is acknowledged and used which is rare. The one mar on it is that Jacob doesn't really share about himself, opting to give fake names and movie plots instead of what really happened to him.

The art therapy is my favorite part of the whole book. At first, everyone is miserable and just going through the motions. This Breakfast Club-esque group of misfits all have their own trauma to deal with. Jacob's filmmaking talent gives each of them the tool to communicate something in a way they never thought of before. Koula apologizes for all the thoughtless, mean things she did when she was drunk or high. Alonzo expresses his journey and pain through mime. Ivan gets to hold a funeral for his mother when he was barred from the original one. Petula made a video archiving her family's life and Maxine's life. When Jacob's secret comes out, everyone is hurt. The ending has everyone on the road to rebuilding and reconciling, but it's not perfect. Petula still has some doubts as one would after being lied to. It's the most realistic representation of a teen relationship I've seen. This book has real emotions and shows different ways of coping with grief and trauma. Optimists Die First is a short, heart punch of a read that I enjoyed. ( )
  titania86 | May 31, 2017 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0553496905, Hardcover)

Award-winning author Susin Nielsen has written a laugh-out-loud and heartrending novel for fans of Robyn Schneider’s Extraordinary Means and Cammie McGovern’s Say What You Will.
Beware: Life ahead.
Sixteen-year-old Petula de Wilde is anything but wild. A former crafting fiend with a happy life, Petula shut herself off from the world after a family tragedy. She sees danger in all the ordinary things, like crossing the street, a bug bite, or a germy handshake. She knows: life is out to get you.
The worst part of her week is her comically lame mandatory art therapy class with a small group of fellow misfits. Then a new boy, Jacob, appears at school and in her therapy group. He seems so normal and confident, though he has a prosthetic arm; and soon he teams up with Petula on a hilarious project, gradually inspiring her to let go of some of her fears. But as the two grow closer, a hidden truth behind why he’s in the group could derail them, unless Petula takes a huge risk. . .

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 08 Aug 2016 00:39:15 -0400)

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