Sixteen year old Petula De Wilde lives with her mother and father in a four-storey walkup called the Arcadia in Vancouver's West End, B.C. A family tragedy, the death of Petula's little sister Maxine three years earlier, has derailed her life and that of her parents.
Petula and her best friend Rachel were ten years old when their mothers were each expecting a second child. Petula and Rachel were "crafting fiends" who spent their weekends making anything and everything. Petula's sister, Maxine Ella was born first and Rachel's brother Owen was born shortly afterwards. Maxine was a sweet, happy child whose favourite book was Where the Wild Things Are.
For Maxine's third birthday, Petula and Rachel made her a wolf costume with brown buttons which Petula sewed on to the front of the suit. One November evening over two years ago, Petula stayed home with Maxine while their parents went shopping. Maxine was fussy that day but Petula still put her down for her nap even though Maxine threw a temper tantrum. Eventually she calmed down and Petula thought Maxine fell asleep. When her parents returned and her father went to get Maxine he found her dead. She had been sucking on one of the buttons and it came loose, lodging in her throat, suffocating her. From this terrible event Petula learned to "always expect the worst."
Since Maxine's death, Petula is always preparing for something terrible to happen and she lives her life with this in mind. She only crosses at designated crosswalks and intersections, she scans the pavement for suspicious objects and bags, she avoids construction sites frequently checks that she's not being followed and carries a rape whistle. Her friendship with Rachel was destroyed when Petula could not bear to see Rachel with Owen and behaved cruelly towards her.
Maxine's death also seriously affected Petula's parents and their marriage. After Maxine's death her parents sold their cozy apartment on Comox. Her father who loved to play music stopped doing so and he's frequently absent from home. Her mother has taken to volunteering for the Vancouver Feline Rescue Association and has taken in six cats. The cats have helped drag Petula's mother "out of her pit of despair after Maxine died, which was something no one else -- not me, not my dad, not her therapist -- had been able to do." But they have also created tension between Petula's mom and dad.
After Maxine's death, Petula is sent to counselling with the school counsellor, Carol Polachuk. However, when she throws a cup at Polachuk, it's decided Petula will attend YART, the school's Youth Art Therapy group once per week. The group is facilitated by Betty Ingledrop who is their art therapist. The group consists of Alonzo Perez who attempted suicide after he came out to his family, Ivan (the Terrible) whose mother drowned two years ago on vacation in Mexico, and Koula Apostolos who is an alcoholic and drug addict. And then there is a new member, the Bionic Man.
The first time Petula sees the Bionic Man is when he is leaving Carol Polachuk's office in the counselling suite. The second time happens when Petula faints during her presentation on the 9/11 disaster. After being checked out by the nurse, Petula talks with Mr. Watley, the principal of St. Margaret SS who encourages her to try to avoid panic attack triggers. When leaving Watley's office, Petula bumps into Bionic Man again. He is at least four inches taller than Petula who stands at 5 ft 11 inches. He introduces himself as Jacob Cohen and offers her his black bionic hand to shake. They meet a third time in English class when Jacob is assigned to be Petula's partner for a class project involving adapting a portion of Wuthering Heights into a screenplay or stage play. Petula want's nothing to do with Jacob but after their YART session he attempts to get her phone number.
On the weekend Jacob shows up a Petula's apartment and meets her parents. He tells them that his family just moved to Vancouver in the past month after his parents got job transfers from Toronto. While at her apartment, Jacob discovers Petula's scrapbook that she keeps with clippings of disasters. She explains to Jacob that she's a pessimist and that the scrapbook reminds her to be vigilant.
As Petula and Jacob's relationship grows, and as she attends more YART sessions, Petula begins to change. Outings with her friends from YART lead Petula to use a public washroom. She reaches out to her estranged friend Rachel and begins to try to recover their friendship. With the encouragement of Jacob, Petula begins to confront her fears. But while Petula and the other YART members open up about their lives, Jacob remains secretive about his past. She can't find him online or on social media and he's insistent that their video project not be posted to YouTube. As Petula begins to heal emotionally, she must face some hard truths about her parents and about the boy she loves.
Set in Vancouver, B.C. Optimists Die First is the story of a young girl who struggles to cope with a series of challenging situations in her life and with the help of friends eventually arrives on the path to healing and forgiveness. Petula De Wilde and her parents are still attempting to come to terms with the death of her litter sister, Maxine, when her parents decide to separate. In addition to this, Petula discovers the boy whom she is in a serious relationship with is discovered to have been involved in a drunk-driving accident that resulted in the deaths of his two best friends.
This would seem to be a large number of heavy subjects to tackle but Nielsen manages her story well through the use of humour. Optimists Die First is laugh out loud funny at times while realistically portraying Petula's struggles. With the death of her sister, Petula has developed rituals to keep herself and her family safe. Maxine's death has taught Petula that life is filled with danger. "Maxine's death had shown me that dangers lurk around every corner. So even if my grief and guilt made it hard for me to get out of bed, I knew I needed to do what I could to keep my parents together and safe. And I had to keep myself safe too...Because I'm it. I'm the only child my parents have left."
Petula's fears are overwhelming and all-encompassing. She hasn't been on a bus or eaten ground beef in two years, she wears mittens to avoid touching public areas with her hands, she plans never to fly, and she won't walk by construction sites. Besides coping with her enormous list of fears, Petula also feels she must be a caretaker to her parents who are also struggling with Maxine's death. Her father is often absent from home and her mother seems obsessed with collecting cats and suffers from depression. Maxine's death has deeply impacted their marriage and despite counseling they seem unable to resolve their issues. This leaves Petula feeling as though she needs to help her parents as they try to maintain some sense of normalcy.
For example when her father complains about how the cats are a priority for Petula's mother rather than the family, Petula quickly intervenes. "I'll clean it up...I vacuumed up all the clumps of cat fur in the living room. I sprayed all surfaces with antibacterial spray and changed the litter boxes. It was part of my strategy: think ahead to things my parents might argue about and try to fix them before they did." On their twentieth wedding anniversary, Petula with the help of Koula, prepares a special evening for her parents, in the hopes that this might help their marriage. Although her parents show much concern for her, it is her relationships with her peers that ultimately help Petula the most.
Nielsen portrays Petula's journey from obsessive fear and guilt towards healing in a gradual and realistic way. Everyone has their part to play in her journey, from her school principal Mr. Watley to Jacob, to Rachel and her companions in YART. Watley continues to encourage Petula to avoid the triggers for her panic attacks and when necessary pushes her towards involvement in life.Petula's relationship with Jacob and her developing friendships with her peers in YART help her begin to live again. With Jacob's encouragement, Petula contacts her best friend Rachel in an attempt to reconcile and the two girls begin crafting again. Rachel is patient and allows Petula to gradually come back into her life. Jacob helps Petula confront some of her other fears too.
One of the strengths of Nielsen's novel is the realistic portrayal of her art therapy group YART, which is populated by quirky but believable teens. The YART teens push Petula to do the things she's avoided for the past two years, such as eating out in restaurants, using public washrooms, and taking public transit. Eventually Petula's realizes that "Something was shifting in me. I woke up in the mornings and actually looked forward to the day." Petula is even able to visit her friend Rachel and be around her little brother Owen, realizing "This is what I was so afraid of. This little boy." And she's finally able to look at Maxine's copy of Where the Wild Things Are and cry over Maxine's death.
Confronting her fears allows Petula to help Jacob confront his own. Koula recognizes that Jacob hasn't been honest with the group. "...we've told him a ton. He hasn't told us much at all. It's like we've peeled back all our layers, and he's only peeled back maybe one." Jacob hadn't told Petula or anyone in YART about his past because he was afraid they would see him as "Jacob, the Drunk Driver Who Killed His Friend." However, with encouragement from Petula, she helps Jacob face down his fear and reach out to the friend who survived, Frankie Goorevitch. But before that Petula must forgive Jacob for the lies he's told and for treating her like a charity case just as she has had to forgive herself and realize that Maxine's death was an accident and no fault of her
Optimists Die First is filled with the themes of redemption, forgiveness, acceptance and the meaning of friendship. All these themes are woven throughout the novel and extend to almost all the characters. The book takes it's title from Petula's belief that pessimists are the ones who survive because they are constantly wary. Optimists die first because they are incautious. However Jacob points out to her that pessimists live smaller, limited lives but to Petula their lives are safer and longer.
Overall, Optimists Die First is a well written, engaging novel. Very enjoyable, short and to the point.
Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen
Toronto: Tundra Books 2017