I read a book! Two A-levels down, and I finally had time to contribute to this blog :’)
Blurb: “Ever since tragedy struck her family, Petula has learned to see danger everywhere- whether it’s crossing the road or eating a poached egg. Petula’s determined not to let her guard down, even if it means allowing herself to be ruled by anxiety and grief, and losing her best friend.
Then Jacob walks into her therapy group. Strikingly tall and confident, he’s survived a different kind of disaster and still come out smiling. At first Petula is repelled by his optimism, yet even she can’t deny their chemistry together.
But optimism is blind- and so is love. What will happen if Petula gives in to both?”
The novel that I decided to read first I actually read it as soon as I bought it, in the car on the way home, because I was so excited to read more from one of the YA authors I like so much. Optimists Die First’s writer, Susin Nielson, previously wrote We Are All Made Of Molecules, which I highly recommend to anyone that hasn’t read yet, and so when I realised that the book with the witty title that had attracted me in a bookstore (I hadn’t meant to buy anything…) was a Susin Nielson book, needless to say I was proud of my very impulsive buy.
To begin with, this book is very diverse. There are young characters, old characters, characters from different cultures and sexualities, as well as people suffering from poor mental health, and so the book overall is very inclusive.
I would say that, whilst this book is overall very resolved and there are no loose ends and there is a genuine story that turns out to have more ups than down, it may contain trigger subjects for some people. Petula, the main character, suffers from what seems to be a for of PTSD, which- as it usually does- includes anxiety and panic attacks, as well as depression and very mild OCD (concerning cleanliness). She is going through treatment in the form of therapy sessions with a school art club and is not close to recovery at the beginning of the novel, and as someone that has anxiety I certainly found this book was very difficult to get through at times because of the subject matter. Thinking positively, the perspective that the novel offers is very realistic (refreshingly, because unfortunately the other representation of anxiety or OCD in YA that I can think of right now was ridiculous and untrue and very wrongly generalised) and whilst there are references to medication, Petula is a rare protagonist in that she is simply living with her problems. She has been through treatment and has not made a recovery, still fainting and having panic attacks, and her perspective shows that a lot of her thoughts are obsessive and most centre around death. What I really liked reading was Petula’s state as a being, because she was definitely one of the most realistic and genuine protagonists I have read about. Honselty, even knowing how much I enjoy Susin Nielson’s work didn’t prepare me for how much I could relate to Petula, and I think that is the main reason that people who are going through anxiety, depression or OCD, or in general anyone that is sensitive to the subjects the novel addresses should approach the novel with caution and only read it if you deem yourself truly ready. There is so much heart in these characters, and therapy and relapses are referred to, and I think the message it sends is brilliant and it will certainly help a lot of people, not only those suffering from mental illnesses but people suffering from grief, people with strained relationships, or anyone that simply wishes to hear an informed opinion into the perspective of someone living with these things.
One of the things that make me hesitant to read YAs with a protagonist suffering from mental health issues, though it is a subject that I will seek out, is the romance side of YA fiction. As I have mentioned before, a lot of the time mental health issues are unfairly romanticised and degraded, with all problems long forgotten as soon as someone develops a crush. Optimists Die First, happily, does not do this. Yes, there is romance within the book and yes, it does lead to a slow healing process, but this was written very well, with healing being very, very slow. The relationship of Petula and Jacob, like all relationships within the book, is complex and detailed, and Petula is very understandably hard to get close to in the beginning, and readers see her internal struggle against trusting others. When she does trust Jacob, he breaks her trust (to prevent spoilers, I won’t go into details) and so her healing is pushed back again, and she again finds it hard to trust other people. I think this was very important to this novel- to show that you can heal, and be hurt again, and you wont be able to just pick up where you left off, that optimism, like the title shows clearly, can and likely will hurt you, but in the end that doesn’t mean you can’t heal again. Petula and Jacob do aid each others recovery and deal with much the same issues, but this doesn’t create an unrealistic set of characters, rather it simply shows that ultimately recovery is up to you, but that doesn’t mean you need to push others away from you. Anxiety and depression and guilt still remain within the characters, these emotions don’t just vanish, but the way they helped each other acknowledge and learn to live with these feelings- not solving them immediately- was commendable and Nielson certainly displays an informed perspective.
Finally, the novel’s addressing forgiveness as a topic was also very interesting. When Jacob breaks Petula’s trust, readers are also sceptical as to whether he should be forgiven , seen in a good light or as he was before this was revealed. With Petula, arguments are presented to readers by the characters within the novel, mixed emotions on the prominent theme of guilt, as well as questions of forgiveness. As a reader I, and I’m sure others that read the novel will agree, was very unsure of my own opinions that the development of Jacob’s backstory presents, and in a way it allowed me to consider the forgiving side of myself as the characters within the novel discussed their perspectives, and so the novel made for an opportunity of self-reflection and thoughtfulness that was unexpectedly strong for YA fiction.
I was definately not disappointed with Nielson and, though I thought the story was very well written and genuine and the characters realistic, diverse and well developed, I would recommend Optimists Die First only to fully recovered people, as it should not act as a self-help device die to the continuous sensitive topics it addresses.