ARC/Book Review: Holding Up the Universe – Jennifer Niven

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Title: Holding Up the Universe (2016)
Author: Jennifer Niven
Publisher: Penguin Teen
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
Extent: 368 pages
Release Date: October 4, 2016
Rating: ★★★★☆

Goodreads Description

Everyone thinks they know Libby Strout, the girl once dubbed “America’s Fattest Teen”. But no one’s taken the time to look past her weight to get to know who she really is. Following her mom’s death, she’s been picking up the pieces in the privacy of her home, dealing with her heartbroken father and her own grief. Now, Libby’s ready: for high school, for new friends, for love, and for every possibility life has to offer.

Everyone thinks they know Jack Masselin, too. Yes, he’s got swagger, but he’s also mastered the impossible art of giving people what they want, of fitting in. What no one knows is that Jack has a newly acquired secret: he can’t recognize faces. Even his own brothers are strangers to him. He’s the guy who can re-engineer and rebuild anything in new and badass ways, but he can’t understand what’s going on with the inner workings of his brain. So he tells himself to play it cool: Be charming. Be hilarious. Don’t get too close to anyone.

Until he meets Libby. When the two get tangled up in a cruel high school game—which lands them in group counseling and community service—Libby and Jack are both pissed, and then surprised. Because the more time they spend together, the less alone they feel… Because sometimes when you meet someone, it changes the world, theirs and yours.

Review

I’ll be honest: I was initially a bit afraid of starting this book because of the whole drama surrounding the initial blurb, which was cited as offensive, fat-shaming, dehumanising, romanticising mental illness, disgusting, and a whole host of other things I don’t care to repeat. Holding Up the Universe, thankfully, ended up being quite the story — quiet yet meaningful, nuanced yet not superfluous.

This book is about Libby, an overweight teenage girl about to go back to school after two years of being homeschooled, and Jack, a biracial teenage boy who has prosopagnosia (face blindness) and is faking his way out of high school. Told in alternating first-person points of view, it’s centred on how their developing friendship affects their lives.

I really liked Libby and was very glad that she wasn’t characterised as timid or vulnerable (although she could be those). She was instead strong, courageous, and just ready — ready to try new things, ready to stand up for herself, ready to put herself out there. I loved that she didn’t back down from any obstacles in her path but instead fully embraced them. She was unafraid, she didn’t let her past define her, and it was great.

As for the rest of you, remember this: YOU ARE WANTED. Big, small, tall, short, pretty, plain, friendly, shy. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, not even yourself.

Jack, on the other hand, didn’t appeal to me quite as much. For the most part, he seemed defined by his condition — understandable, honestly, given what how much it affected his interactions and relationships with other people — and when he was not, he was weighed down by his parents’ relationship. Many of his actions and decisions didn’t make immediate logical sense to me, so I found him slightly less relatable than Libby.

The remaining cast of characters was quite lively in their own right. I particularly enjoyed Libby’s Dad, who was very supportive and understandably protective of Libby, and her friend Bailey, who was sweet and honest, with nary a mean bone in her body. I also liked Jack’s brother, Dusty, whose attitudes and perspectives make him an inspiring figure in Jack’s life despite being younger.

“People are shitty for a lot of reasons. Sometimes they’re just shitty people. Sometimes people have been shitty to them and, even though they don’t realise it, they take that shitty upbringing and go out into the world and treat others the same way. Sometimes they’re shitty because they’re afraid. Sometimes they choose to be shitty to others before others can be shitty to them.”

The romance between Jack and Libby was unfortunately where the story dips for me a little — rather than anything else, I saw their ‘love’ more as a deep-rooted care for one another, tinged with physical attraction and infatuation. I appreciate their relationship and enjoyed the flirty banter, but I question whether their interactions were numerous enough so that their feelings could develop that far.

I also question if the romance was, at least a little bit, pushed as an ‘exception’ to Jack’s prosopagnosia. It didn’t feel 100% right to me that even though he couldn’t recognise his family and friends or recall their faces, he could do this when it comes to Libby. It didn’t come easily to him, mind, but from my (admittedly very brief) research these kinds of exceptions didn’t seem to be common, so unfortunately it ended up feeling forced.

Flaws aside, I did enjoy Niven’s writing style, which in a way reminds me of Sarah Dessen: elegant without being too wordy, meaningful without being preachy. As someone who has read All The Bright Places, I’d say that both books have a very similar ‘feel’ but are still different enough that it’s not repetitive, and personally speaking, this one was a bit more relatable to me.

It’s about the important things, like the way their face lights up when they laugh, or the way they move as they’re walking toward you, or the way their freckles create a map of the stars.

* I received an ARC of HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE from Penguin Teen and NetGalley in exchange for a honest review. This in no way swayed my opinion of the book.

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31 thoughts on “ARC/Book Review: Holding Up the Universe – Jennifer Niven

  1. I kind of laughed at the fact Jack could somewhat recognize how Libby face looked when in reality a person with prosopagnosia can’t even recognize how their own face looks. I can definitely see how that would end up sounded forced which sucks because altering a disorder just to add a romance is a big NO for me in books. I think I may put off reading this one for a while, but great review as always Reg! 🙂

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    • Yeah, that part didn’t sit well with me – it just seems a little like saying that romance may make the exception to these things? But I’m a bit ??? because I feel like not a lot of people have commented on this thing, so it could also have been just my reading. 🙈

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  2. I’ve seen this book floating around, and honestly I’m intrigued! Clearly romanticizing a mental disorder is wrong, but how often can you find an overweight (main) character in a book? As someone on the chubby side, I’ve really wanted to read this! Awesome review! 🙂

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  3. Great review, Reg! I think you summed up better than I did how I felt about the story. I loved Libby, she’s such a strong character and she’s full of inspiration to me, really. I loved her. I had a harder time with Jack, relating to him and he seemed a bit more, flat than Libby, though I did enjoy his point of view, I didn’t enjoy it as much as Libby’s. I liked the romance part, but it felt like there HAD to be a romance, while if you ask me it wasn’t too necessary here. Without it the story would have been just as good, with just a solid friendship or something 🙂

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  4. I really enjoy it when stories are told from multiple characters’ points of view. Like you, I’ve been scared to try this book; I really don’t know why! However, after reading your review, I know I will definitely give Holding up the Universe a try! 😀

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  5. Yay, I’m glad you liked it! Especially that you thought it was more relatable than All The Bright Places – I tried reading it, but I didn’t love it, because I felt such a strong disconnect to the characters.
    But it definitely sounds really interesting – I’ve never heard of prosopagnosia, and whilst Niven may not have covered it too well in this book (re. the romance), I’d love to read about it in this book! Can’t wait to read it – wonderful review, Reg! ❤

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  6. That is too bad liberties were taken with jack’s condition, making it less believable. Maybe their relationship and the story would have been served better with a friendship. Still, it sounds as if the writing and the characters were good enough to enjoy the story anyway 🙂 Great review!

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  7. Great review Reg. This sounds like a good book as well so I am definitely going to be adding Jennifer Niven’s books to my to-read list, especially given you described her writing style as similar to Sarah Dessen’s a YA author I really really love! 🙂
    I already like the sound of Libby’s character but Jack seems a little off to me just from the sound of your review. On one hand I guess it’s good his condition is being highlighted in the book but not so good it’s what defines his character. And also it sounds like some of the facts of his condition didn’t add up, like him being able to recognize Libby’s face but not his families’.
    Either way you’ve definitely convinced me I need to get started on Jennifer Niven’s books, the only question now is which one to start with! 😀

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    • Thanks, Beth! I prefer Sarah Dessen tbh, but that’s not a huge surprise because I LOVE Dessen and will likely follow her writing to the end of the world. 😂

      Yeah, from reading other people’s reviews and comments, I think generally Jack comes across as less relatable and believable than Libby. I do hope you pick up this book, though – I’d love to know what you think! I prefer this one compared to ATBP. 💕

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      • Well yeah same here, Sarah Dessen is one of my all-time favourite YA contemporary authors so she is always going to be hard to beat for me as well! I will definitely pick up anything she writes!
        It sounds like Libby was still a great character, and from the sound of your review as well it didn’t seem like Jack was a completely unrelatable character either. I’ve added it to my to-read list, not sure when I’ll get around to it though, I have a fair few books on my to-read list for October already! 😀

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        • Yeah, I’m the same. I think I might already be biased… though then again reading is already very subjective in itself.

          We are getting a lot of really great books this October! Not to mention I’m also still catching up on September releases. Hope you have a great reading month in October and enjoy all the books that you’re picking up. 😊

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          • Well yeah definitely subjective, but I do agree with you on that point.
            I still have some September releases I need to catch up on, and some releases from before that as well! I’ve got to get caught up so I can start the October releases as soon as I get them! 😀

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  8. Loved your review! I haven’t read this one but it’s on my TBR and I’m really glad you liked it despite those blurbs about it being offensive and all. All the Bright Places was one of my best reads last year so I’m pretty excited to start reading this one. 🙂

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