Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

*I received an advanced readers copy from Penguin Random House UK for review*

Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books, February 21st 2017

Edition: Ebook, 224 pages

Goodreads Link

Synopsis: Beware: Life ahead.optimists-black-uk
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.

Initially, my main draw to this book was the cover and the title. And upon reading this book, you realise how indicative of the main protagonist this title really is. When I began reading, I admittedly could not remember the synopsis, however I knew I was excited enough by it to request it on NetGalley. And, it was nice to begin reading with a mostly blank slate. I actually ended up finishing this book in two days because I could not put it down. Here are all the reasons why…


Firstly, the opening does an effective job at introducing us to our main protagonist, Petula, and her past and personality. Nielsen manages to create a perfect balance, discussing Petula’s past without it feeling like an overwhelming exposition dump. From the beginning, the story is easy to engage with as a result of it being set in a world most of us are familiar with; you become immediately interested in the complexities of each character as they feel realistic, fleshed out even in subtext.

Equally, the ending offers clear closure for many character’s storylines. As well as leaving it open enough for one of our main cast members to maybe be explored in a novella. However, even if the next events are not written up, the story ends on a sense of optimism that leaves you feeling satisfied. So, an expansion may not be necessary.

Some issues I think worthy of noting in terms of the story are: the pacing, which is sometimes sluggish. Plus, the ‘dramatic disequilibrium stage’ did not happen until the 70% mark. However, the narrative included many ups, and down that were engaging, it just seems that the most ‘shocking’ obstacle to happiness occurred quite late on in the narrative – nevertheless, this did not decrease its shock factor.

Additionally, there were scenes that could have been expended upon, not many, but there were occasions when we were told something happened, but we never got to see it. Although, Nielsen does redeem herself as she manages to expanded on certain scenes, offering more detail to the situation that allows us to better picture what is happening – for example, detailing the appearance of a simple one scene character who has come to collect some records. These extra details were appreciated as it allows you to see the extra characters as more than an unimportant passerby.


As for the characters, they were the shining jewel of this book. For one, the first person perspective allows you to fully engage with Petula’s chaotic mind. You follow her as she logically explains her reactions to everything, while other characters call her ‘weird’ and ‘strange’,  you actually understand why she acts as she does – it makes perfect sense. This is the same with the majority of the cast, although you remain in Petula’s mind, you find yourself able to understand why everyone acts the way they do. And how their personalities has adapted as a result of their past traumas.

Furthermore, the main cast of misfits at YART – the art therapy class – all have traumatic pasts. One has lost a parent and never gained closer, another came out as gay to an unaccepting family, and another is now dealing with the consequences of what she did while substance abusing. Nielsen manages to deal with these topics in a respectful and impactful manner. The book doesn’t focus on ‘fluffing up’ everyone’s situations, instead it focuses on how they may all cope, learn, redeem themselves, and find closer. Nielsen presents that your difficulties are accepted, and teaches you how to move on, or how to face them head on. This is all done through a realistic and developed cast of flawed characters – there were no caricatures.

Everything Else:

  • There were small scenes that could have been seen as unrealistic, however you can suspend your disbelief.
  • I both cried and laughed at this book. Which is something I haven’t been able to do when reading for a while, so it was nice.
  • One of the main themes within this book is grief and guilt. Two strong emotions that were discussed through Petula and Josh. Petula’s source of grief was three years prior, while Josh’s was only a few months from where the book begins. It was interesting to see how both character’s grieved due to the distance in time.

Overall, Optimists Die First was a contemporary that didn’t just focus on the romance. Instead, it held a diverse cast of deeply flawed individuals and followed them as they overcame their traumatic pasts. Nielsen dealt with each situation tentatively, delivering a satisfying, yet realistic ending.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Optimists Die First will release on February 21st! Make sure to add it to your wish list, then share your thoughts down below!


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