The best word to describe Susin Nielsen’s Optimists Die First is cute. Largely inconsequential and borrowing from many past contemporaries, but so earnest in its attempt to bring a smile to readers faces. And this short, sweet story definitely does that. Nielsen shows off her affinity for cats and crafting in spades (two things I can appreciate in my books), and keeps the plot moving with protagonist Petula’s charming personality. It’s the perfect book for a reluctant reader, or someone looking to start and finish a story over the weekend. Beyond that though, I would struggle deciding who I could recommend Optimists Die First too. The crux of this is really two major problems; first, the length. It’s roughly 220 pages of large print, large spaced text. There’s hardly any room to develop an exposition, let alone an entire book. Secondly, Nielsen isn’t really sure herself who the target age group for Petula’s journey is. Her characters are roughly 16/17 years old (and do occasionally act like it), but their narrative voices would be alienating to someone that age. All this led to the story feeling very disjointed, and left it with little appeal for me.
Like I said though, Nielsen knows hows to write sweet characters in a sweet world that will leave you smiling in a Pinterest inspired bubble of glitter and felt. I really related to Petula’s quirky hobbies, which I felt immediately made me invested in her as a character. If macrame and Wuthering Heights ft. cat Heathcliff aren’t up your alley though, this may be a bit harder of a sell. However I’m fairly confident that I would have fell for Petula + Jacob and company regardless, as every single fictional person in this book is just so heartfelt. Nielsen found people and perspectives that are normally never mentioned in YA, and gave them a place to exist. I also felt it really nailed the way people deal with grief, and would be an especially good fit for a junior high aged reader coming to terms with a loss. As I mentioned above though, the story simply isn’t long enough for me to say anything more positive about it. In the blink of an eye I was finished, with Nielsen presenting the ending in a clean package with little semblance to real life. I could tell what a strong storyteller she is (her dialogue is strong and her pacing equally so), but Optimists Die First simply didn’t push hard enough to break any boundaries set before it. Bluntly put, vanilla ice cream is more exotic than this book. Which is unfortunate, especially when a good writer’s talent goes to waste.
Also problematic is Nielsen’s representation of a major anxiety disorder, which is pretty glossed over in my opinion. It’s the cornerstone of the whole story at first, but by the end Petula is “cured”. And of course it’s because of a guy. Not that I didn’t like Petula and Jacob’s romance, because I did. But for both of them it seemed to present a fix all for everything going on in their lives. I wouldn’t say it’s necessary insincere, just unrealistic in my opinion. I would have respected Nielsen more had she ended things with the climax, and had the two just be friends. Beyond that though nothing else left much of an impression.
With all this considered I’d say the ideal reader is a 6th/7th grader, though I’d be hesitant to put it in the hands of every 12 year old considering a few sex scenes. I won’t be singing this one praises off the roof anytime soon, but it is a solid choice if you’re in a pinch.
-Keep Calm and Read On