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