Book Review: Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsin

Optimists Die First normally wouldn’t be the type of book I’d pick up. I’m usually drawn to something with more action or something that has fantastical aspects to the world and story. This year I’m branching out into some new territory and I lucked out with this one.

Optimists Die First is written by Susin Nielsen. The story follows the teenager Petula as she comes to grips with the death of her six-year-old sister. Part of her therapy is an art group that has different kids working out different problems. It’s a club of misfits that no one wants to be a part of but they have a baseline understanding of one another, even if it’s masked by hostility. One day a new kid, Jacob, joins the group with a prosthetic arm and a charming personality. The relationship that buds between Petula and Jacob helps them both come to terms with their own tragedies and move forward.

Ironically enough, this book was a lot of fun to read. The story has some humorous moments, but the subject matter is serious and at times downright tragic. In some cases where the author would keep the source of the main character’s pain a guarded secret and slowly unveil it piece by piece to the reader, Nielsen goes the other way and sets the story a few short chapters in. Your heart brakes for Petula and you wonder if you would ever cope with the tragedy that she has to.

To avoid spoilers of any kind, let’s just say that Petula is an extreme risk assessor due to what’s happened to her sister. She’s removed herself from most things in her life and she’s working overtime trying to keep her family together. As the story progresses, Petula, her parents, and even Jacob are forced to confront what ails them, and it’s interesting to see how things fall. The characters in this story feel real. The kids in the art group have their own sources of pain and I think a reader can identify with at least one person in the group.

The ending to a story can make or break an entire book and I was happy with this one. There was an underlying feel of hope to everything, and the story felt like it went in a natural way where nothing was forced or contrived to fit for story’s sake. The book is set up in smaller chapters where you feel like you are making quick progress with the story, but nothing feels shortchanged or rushed. I would recommend this to readers looking for something with a quick wit and a great feel of reality.

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