Meet Petula de Wilde. She looks around for tragic stories, completely avoidable accidents, from texting while crossing the sidewalk to a fallen plant off a balcony to a kid watching Peter Pan or Spider-Man and trying to test their powers. She lives a pessimistic life, worried about strangers and any possible abnormality. That’s because her younger sister, Maxine, died two years ago from one of these instances. Petula was babysitting Maxine and Maxine was crying, so she brought her to her room to try and calm down, and it turns out Maxine ended up choking on a button sown in this costume Petula and her friend Rachel designed, and if Maxine cried for help, Petula didn’t hear it. Now Petula goes to a class for troubled kids around her neighbourhood. We have Ivan, a little kid who loves gas emission who is an orphan, dead mom and abandoned dad. Alonzo has been disowned by his family for his attraction to men. Koula is a goth, Alonzo’s best friend and the biggest contributor to the quarter-a-piece swear jar their supervisor Betty lays out. Petula’s parents have problems of their own. Her mother’s bookstore and her father’s record store are seeing declines, and her mom volunteers at an animal shelter and keeps bringing home cats to foster, without notifying anyone else in the family beforehand. They have five cats at the moment, most of them foster fails, which means a lot of work feeding them, wiping up their shedded hair, paying vet bills, and handling their messes, especially whenever one of them decides to excrete somewhere stealthily away from the litter box. After a day where Petula as usual slows down with everything due to her fears, and avoids Rachel for a feud they haven’t solved, ends up one day catching the attention of Jacob, a transfer student with a very serious injury.
This is an innocent book like Mosquitoland and No One Else Can Have You where the protagonist functions under guidelines completely different from the average person because they experienced trauma as developing kids. It’s also a lot shadier than the average contemporary tale. Has anyone ever broken into your home? Have you ever been threatened by someone with a weapon? If so, what was the stress like? How did your life change? Were you still in the phase of growing up into the world when this happened? These sort of violent acts are often what you’d expect would happen to someone else. But then you have a whole new outlook on life and the world, but everyone else doesn’t get it. Especially if you feel guilt. For instance, if your house was broken into, did someone leave the lock open? Was someone not stealthy enough on the key you leave under the mat? This book does not tread lightly on these ideas. Despite its pessimistic title, you’d think from being just 200 pages and having artwork in the form of a knitted sweater that this wouldn’t be too punchy. It still is.
I also really liked Jacob, especially when we learn he’s had to endure something even worse than an unfixable dismemberment. Whenever I talk to people about what we want to do with our lives, I realize there are some people that don’t care about making a name for ourselves and significantly helping the world as much as I expect. But when someone wants to make a difference and he or she felt they had a chance but they blew it...which would be worse? Not caring, or caring and not being able to help because you did something awful? Thought provoking!
While it’s true that Optimists Die First does not put Petula under physical torture, which millions of others have to endure all the time, it does put her under extreme distress through not just her fears but her harsh environment, and the result is a refreshingly insightful short treat. Everything she goes through we’re on board with her.