Book Review: Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven
Also by this author: All the Bright Places
Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers on October 4th 2016
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Goodreads Synopsis: From the author of the New York Times bestseller All the Bright Places comes a heart-wrenching story about what it means to see someone—and love someone—for who they truly are.
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. In that moment, I know the part I want to play here at MVB High. I want to be the girl who can do anything.
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 bad-ass 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.
Jennifer Niven delivers another poignant, exhilarating love story about finding that person who sees you for who you are—and seeing them right back.
My Review of Holding Up the Universe:
I read Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places last year. It took me on such an emotional roller coaster ride and immediately became one of my all-time favorite reads. Because my opinion of that book is so high, I was a little apprehensive going into Holding Up the Universe because surely there was no way this new book could begin to compete with All the Bright Places in terms of grabbing me by the heartstrings and not letting me go. I’m happy to say, however, that my hesitation was completely unwarranted as Holding Up the Universe is every bit the emotionally poignant read for me that All the Bright Places was. It made me laugh, cry, feel every emotion in between, and it also made me really examine how I view the people around me. Am I really seeing them? Am I putting myself in their shoes and trying to imagine what they might be going through? I love when I can connect with a book on that kind of level and use it for self-reflection.
What I Loved about Holding Up the Universe:
Libby Strout: When Libby Strout, one of the novel’s main characters, is just ten years old, her mother tragically and unexpectedly dies. A grieving Libby feels understandably lost, sinks into depression, and ultimately turns to food as a way to comfort herself. Her lifestyle unfortunately becomes unhealthy for so long that she actually ends up housebound and has to therefore be home-schooled. When Libby’s unhealthy lifestyle ultimately leads to a medical emergency, she literally has to be cut from her house by rescue workers. This event of course ends up captured on video and goes viral on the internet, the end result being that Libby is dubbed “America’s Fattest Teen.” The whole experience is a wake up call for Libby who begins to see a therapist in order to sort herself out and get back on the road to both physical and mental health. When we meet Libby, she has lost enough weight that she feels ready to rejoin the world and so is starting her first day of high school.
I fell in love with Libby immediately. Hell, I didn’t just fall in love with Libby; I wanted to BE Libby because she is just such a rockstar. She’s courageous, resilient, confident, has a wicked sense of humor, and just this all around kickass personality. She knows exactly who she is and she totally OWNS it. Some of her classmates stare and, gawk at her and make juvenile mooing sounds at her when she walks by, but it is not her size that defines who Libby is, it’s her larger than life personality. Libby is not a character that you feel sorry for because she is mocked by her classmates; Libby is a character that you live life to the fullest with and revel in her ‘coming out’, so to speak. If anything, you end up feeling sorry for the losers who mock her because they are the ones missing out on a friendship with a truly remarkable young woman. I really loved that Jennifer Niven painted Libby in such a refreshing way instead of having her be someone that should be pitied throughout the story.
I think my absolute favorite Libby moment in this book is when she decides to try out for the school dance team. The captain of the squad, Caroline Lushamp, has been snide and nasty to Libby ever since she came back to school. Libby gives the audition of her life, because as Libby herself says, “the dance is in me.” This girl has serious moves and her spirit is just so infectious that if you’re with her and she starts dancing, you won’t be able to stop yourself from joining in. When Libby finishes her audition, Caroline immediately starts in with her nasty questions. She wants to know how much Libby weighs and would she be willing to lose over 200 pounds in order to be considered for the team. Libby takes one look at her, says “Absolutely not”, leaves, and promptly starts her own school dance team. Oh, to have had that kind of chutzpah when I was in high school!
Jack Masselin: Jack is the other main character in Holding Up the Universe, and Jack has a secret – he has something called prosopagnosia and, because of it, he cannot recognize the faces of those around him, not even his friends and family. He can literally be sitting there talking to someone and if they look away and then look right back at him, he doesn’t know who they are. He has never been formally diagnosed, so not even his parents realize what is going on with him. He has been hiding his condition since he was a child and has been somewhat successful keeping track of people by memorizing other identifiers about them. But as he has gotten older, he has found himself in more and more awkward and embarrassing situations because of it – once accidently kissing the cousin of his girlfriend because he couldn’t tell the difference between the two girls, and then another time he accidentally flirted with a substitute teacher because he didn’t realize that she wasn’t a fellow student, and so on and so on. His primary coping mechanism has been to develop a certain persona – he constantly plays it cool, tries to laugh the awkward moments off like he has done them intentionally, but ultimately he keeps people at a distance because it’s when they get too close that they start to realize that Jack isn’t as carefree and happy go lucky as he initially comes across.
I really liked Jack’s character because this secret that he is carrying around makes him so complex. I can’t imagine what it would be like to never recognize the faces of those around me and then on top of that, trying to hide it from everyone around me. In some ways Jack frustrated me because of this – I kept thinking ‘Oh my gosh, if you would just tell people, your life would be so much less complicated because people would understand why you do the things you do.’ But at the same time, I could totally understand wanting to not make yourself stand out if at all possible in a world where, as Libby Strout sees every day, some people can be jerks. When a stupid, insulting game called ‘Fat Girl Rodeo’ throws Libby and Jack together, an interesting and very complicated relationship begins to develop between them and Libby quickly begins to see through Jack’s carefully constructed (as he calls it) ‘Super Douche’ persona down to the real Jack, the one he lets no one see.
I liked the contrast between these two characters. Where Libby is all sass and brass, Jack, even with all his attempts at playing it cool, comes across as very vulnerable and in need of someone to basically save him from his own stubbornness about his condition. Libby to the rescue!
Seeing and Being Seen: The major theme of Holding Up the Universe is about seeing – it’s about not only seeing people for who they really are, but also about you yourself really being seen by those around you. It’s about getting past those snap judgments that get made based solely on appearance or by one encounter. I think Niven tackles this theme beautifully with both Libby and Jack. After an initially bumpy start, Jack and Libby eventually come together and a beautiful friendship begins to develop. Even though she actually punches Jack in the face the first time they encounter each other, as they both land in detention/after school therapy and are forced to spend quality time together, Libby quickly begins to see that Jack is not nearly the horrible person she initially thought he was. And Jack, just as quickly, realizes that he feels more comfortable and more himself around Libby than he does around anyone else. Once he realizes he can’t deny this connection he feels to Libby, he drops the doucheboy act and gets as real with her as she has been with him– even confessing the secret about his prosopagnosia to her.
Anything I didn’t like?
Overall I thought this was a fabulous read. I stayed up until well past midnight last night to finish it because I just had to see how it ended. I did have one small quibble with the events of the story though and that was when Jack states that he really could recognize Libby just because he loved her. I’m probably just being nitpicky but it seems like if loving someone is enough to recognize and remember them, then shouldn’t he have been able to recognize and remember his family members? I don’t know. I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around the logic here but it didn’t make me like the book any less than I otherwise would have.
Who Would I Recommend This Book to?
Because of its ultimate message that ‘You Are Wanted’ no matter who you are, what you look like, what size you are, etc., I’d recommend this book to anyone, and especially to anyone who needs to hear that message or who needs to realize the importance of putting oneself in the shoes of another and trying to understand what they may be going through: be a Libby Strout to those around you, don’t be Caroline Lushamp.
Rating: 4 stars
Great review. You did enjoy the book alot! I agree with your point – why could not her recognize and remember his family members?
Yes, that one part just didn’t click for me. Seems like if love is the key, then the people you are closest to in the whole world should work the same as the girl you love.
I still need to read the author’s first book – which I really do want to – but this one sounds great. I’m glad you were able to connect to the characters.
Thanks! Oh yes, definitely read Niven’s first book. It really is a fantastic and compelling book.
I LOVED All the Bright Places! I stayed up all night reading it and I cried so much! I have a copy of Holding Up the Universe on my bookshelf and I can’t wait to start reading it! Great review! 🙂
I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
I HAD to come back to your review now that I finally finished this book and I LOVED IT. I completely agree with everything you said in your review. It did feel super weird that Jack could recognize Libby at the end, but overall, I’m pretty content with the ending. I loved Libby so much, she was so incredible. Such an adorable and inspiring, feel-good book!
I’m so glad to hear you liked it as much as I did. Libby was so awesome!
I really enjoyed All the Bright Places and want to get to this one too. Sounds like it will be just as good and have a great message behind it. Great review!
Thanks! Yes, I think if you loved All the Bright Places then you’ll enjoy this one as well. I love the messages Jennifer Niven conveys with her books.