Optimists Die First
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Petula is a confirmed pessimist-hardly surprising, since her babysister Maxine died after choking on a button she had chewed from an outfit which Petula had made for her and her parents' marriage crumbled in the face of the tragedy. Guilt and pessimism make a powerful cocktail and it acts on Petula by instilling an obsessive avoidance of danger or risk. Then Jacob comes into her life, full to the brim with unassailable optimism and steals her heart. Nielsen sets this tension as the fulcrum of the book, supporting it with rich seam of unlikely characters, all beset by problems, all confined in a school therapy group.
Nielsen has a pitch-perfect ear for the dialogue of the unconventional, the betrayed, the guilty, and as the members of the group work towards their own equilibrium it never deteriorates into sentimentality or cliché. In addition, she manages to weave in an often self-deprecating humour, and one which has its genesis in anger or grief. The convincing dialogue and crisply realised characters give many chapters, particularly the therapy sessions, a cinematic quality. As the members of the group grow closer, so do Jacob and Petula, but there is an unease, an inbalance in their honesty with one another and when Petula learns the truth about the accident in which his friends died she has to re-think her commitment to him.
Relationships constantly adjust in this novel - those between members of the therapy group, Petula and Jacob, Petula's parents and Petula and her best friend Rachel, their closeness initially ruptured by Maxine's death. Although problems are resolved, there is no sense of endings being neatly tied up, but rather a process of learning and reconciliation coming to fruition.
Read more about Susin Nielsen in our interview.