Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

This book left me feeling positive in a ‘there is hope in this shit‘ way. Petula’s little sister died. Petula blames herself. Petula is a BAD person. And she is trying so hard to make up for the misery she has caused. Of course telling someone, especially Petula, that it’s not her fault, won’t make any difference. Because guilt is irrational, and it eats you, slowly, slowly, slowly. Petula used to love doing crafts. Petula used to have friends. Now Petula goes to YART – youth art therapy group – and tries not to die in a freak accident.

Into YART walks Jacob. But this is not an instant love story. This is a friendship that helps Petula and the other YART attendees to begin to bond and heal, to build up their strength and to reduce their guilt. Only Jacob has a secret, a really big secret.

Nielsen creates wonderful characters, all morally flawed, all human. They make mistakes, but together and singularly they use their creative talents to help them move forward. Jacob loves making films, and this allows each member of the group to one by one showcase their fears and hopes and find peace amongst the chaos.

When Jacob’s secret is revealed, everyone is morally conflicted. Even the reader is morally conflicted. And Nielsen deals with it well. She shows both sides of the story, leaning towards pro-forgiveness, but forgiveness is a central theme of this book. When each character learns to forgive themselves a little bit, and also seek forgiveness from others, amazing things happen.

There wasn’t anything I could pinpoint as special about this book. There were emotions, cats, teen love, embarrassing parents, safe sex. At the end though, I felt like everyone had been reborn. I absolutely loved Petula’s craft obsession and that really defined her as a person for me. I loved how talented she was, how geeky about it she was, how she had a friend she could share her love of crafts with, and it made me so happy to see her allowing herself to have a hobby that made her happy.

I wish as a kid I did more hobbying and less worrying. Petula spoke to this part of me. Maybe it’s not too late for me either.

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