(Spoiler free until told otherwise)
As you may have gathered, I’m very hard to please in a YA contemporary, especially in terms of romance. I love reading them, but I always have very strict criteria. If you were to compare the themes of Optimists Die First and What Light by Jay Asher, you would find a lot of similarities. Ultimately, both books are about forgiveness, both self-forgiveness, and forgiving others. You may recall I gave What Light a 2/5 stars, so you’ll be happy to hear that this time round I doubled that score!
Optimists Die First tells the story of Petula, who I imagine to be around 15/16 years old, but I’m not sure that her age is ever stated. When she was 10, Petula lost her younger sister after she choked on a button and passed away. This book tells the story of Petula and her YART (art therapy) class after the arrival of a new boy named Jacob, who forces them to look at their situation differently, making Petula face the reality of her tragic past. Note: possible trigger warnings for suicide, infant morbidity, depression, alcoholism – basically, there’s a lot of things that could be seen as triggers, but they are dealt with very tastefully in my opinions and so I’m hoping won’t deter too many prospective readers.
As you’ll know from my previous reviews, I have high standards when it comes to my female protagonists, I really need a strong female lead. Petula was a strange mix. Obviously, she has deep scars from her past, but ultimately I think she’s still an admirable character. Although I don’t fully appreciate some of the more damsel-in-distress-like imagery of the book, I felt that it was subtle and sparse enough to prevent annoyance, leaving enough of Petula’s recovery in her own hands rather than the hands of her significant male other.
(Mild spoilers from here on out folks, up to you if you continue!)
Speaking of that significant male other, Jacob was an interesting character. I was on to him from the start, I thought he was a bit too cagey about his accident, and when he was all of a sudden willing to sing like a bird, it seemed a bit fishy. However, as a character, he was well developed and I largely appreciated his relationship with Petula.
However, one aspect of their relationship didn’t agree with me. I don’t think they needed to make a mention of the fact that Petula and Jacob were sleeping together. Although I appreciate the fact that they emphasised the use of protection and talked about her going to the doctors, I don’t think it added anything important to the story. Nevertheless, it was handled well.
Family dynamic is very important to me. Especially in a genre where it tends to be so frequently messed up. Obviously, I’m a fan of the nuclear family, and this novel doesn’t really meet those criteria. However, I liked Petula’s family nonetheless, they had clearly tried to stick together and their separation was ultimately peaceful – the author didn’t try to screw up the family in an attempt to make their story even more sad (One of the worst offenders of this is The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson).
I suppose if I’m talking about the family, this is the best time to mention the De Wilde cat colony. At first, I thought this was a very strange addition to the story, but soon I came to love them. They were actually a really integral part of the story. For Petula, the cats were a distraction, a way of helping out her parents. For her mother, they were an attempt to replace the baby she lost. Ultimately, the number of cats throughout the novel is a clear indication of how the family is dealing with Maxine’s death as it rises and falls throughout the novel.
As far as book deaths go, I liked the subtlety of Maxine’s. It wasn’t grand, it wasn’t gory, it was something that could have happened to anyone. The realistic nature of the accident really helped the story to feel more organic and explained why the remaining characters felt so guilty (when her father explained why he felt guilty, my heart broke a little).
In fact, all of the tragic situations of the book were well thought through, even if the characters weren’t particularly likable. The YART group were very messed up and obviously quite difficult people in places, yet somehow this made me love them more… if that makes sense. They were all very realistic and found ways to get past their own horrors together. I think my favourite character in the book has got to be Ivan – he was so vulnerable and felt like a small child, so many feels!
As I mentioned in my introduction, this story is a tale of forgiveness, and so there are multiple examples of this throughout the novel. The first is with Rachel. I was very impressed that Rachel didn’t forgive Petula straight away, she took her time and was cautious. She wanted it to feel right – again, just very realistic.
The same can be said for Petula and Jacob. Even at the end of the novel, you can tell that Petula is still working through her feelings. I enjoyed seeing the consequences of their actions, unlike in What Light when he chased his sister with a knife and everyone ended up being like ‘okay’. In short, this was a story of forgiveness, both of oneself, of one’s past and of others.
I won’t focus too much on the writing as I don’t really have a lot to say about it. It was a very easy read, I didn’t feel like I had to struggle through the pages. I felt like the words could just wash over me and I understood them perfectly. I don’t know if this next part was intentional, but I found a lot of Petula’s presentation of life and risk very humorous, without it being disrespectful and making a mockery – a very important trait when dealing with mental illness, it was normalised without being tasteless.
Overall, I can’t explain why I liked it so much, and I guess that’s why I’m deducting a star and only giving it 4/5 stars. I won’t be jumping up and down raving about it like I do with Illuminae or Everything Everything, but it was a well-constructed story, dealing with a difficult topic in a tasteful (and relatable) way.
Optimists Die First is due to be released on the 2nd March 2017 (in two days time!). I would recommend you give it a shot if you liked the general premise of What Light, the feel of a John Green novel (but maybe a little less pretentious) and the length of a longer novella!