(Image from Barnes & Noble)
Two years ago, Petula de Wilde killed her little sister. Intellectually, the 16-year-old knows Maxine's death wasn't her fault—not entirely—but she can't quite convince her aching heart. Nothing's been the same since Max died. Not Petula's parents, who can barely stand each other. Not her friendship with Rachel; the two no longer speak. Not Petula's fragile psyche, which can't stop seeing death in every pothole, germ, and hamburger patty. Petula used to be normal. Now, she's a freak with such limited social skills that she's stuck doing preschool projects in art therapy class with the all other weirdos at her high school.
Then, Petula meets the Bionic Man. Jacob Cohen, a 17-year-old amputee, has just moved to Vancouver from Toronto. For reasons the budding filmmaker refuses to divulge, he has also been placed in "crafting for crazies." For reasons just as mysterious, Jacob seems to find Petula oozing with friend potential. She can't understand why a nice, normal guy like him would think her appealing, but he's slowly pushing through the defenses she throws up against everyone else. Before she knows it, Petula and Jacob have become closer than she could have ever imagined. Petula's told him all her deep, dark secrets, so why is Jacob so reticent with his? What is he hiding? When the truth finally comes to light, everything will change. Including a tenuous relationship between two very broken teenagers ...
Yesterday when I was reading Optimists Die First, a YA tragicomedy by Susin Nielsen, my 15-year-old daughter asked what the book was about. Without really thinking, I replied, "A quirky girl meets a quirky boy and they fall in quirky love." And you know what? That's a pretty apt description, if I do say so myself. Petula, a craft and cat fiend with myriad neuroses, defines quirky. Her oddities keep her interesting, while her voice—which is strong and real—makes her relatable. She's a sympathetic character, one readers want to see succeed. Gentle Jacob appeals in much the same way. In fact, this could be said of all Nielsen's story people. They're a likable lot. Which makes Optimists Die First fun to read. It's a sad book, yes, but it's more hopeful than not. Although there were parts I wasn't so keen on (hello, bizarrely lax parenting!), overall, I enjoyed this novel about friendship, forgiveness, and finding hope in even the darkest of crafting disasters.
(Readalikes: Hm, I can't think of anything. Can you?)
If this were a movie, it would be rated:
for language (no F-bombs), sexual content, and references to drugs and underage drinking (references are non-graphic and used mostly in a cautionary way)
To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Optimists Die First from the generous folks at Random House Children's Books. Thank you!