Holding Up The Universe by Jennifer Niven
Maturity Rating: 14+
My rating: 2.5 STARS
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, 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.
Let me start off by saying that this blurb is longer than some of the POV’s in this book. I’m writing this review two weeks or so after I finished it. Now, in hindsight, I’m looking back and thinking that this book was pretty… meh. Good; not the worst but not the best or near the best either.
This book is about people doing shitty things to each other and the why’s of it. There are many reasons why people do shitty things and it was perfectly encapsulated in these paragraphs:
“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 realize 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 they can be shitty to them. So it’s like self-defensive shittiness.”
“Why would being afraid make someone act shitty?”
“Because maybe someone doesn’t like who he is, but then here’s this other kid who knows exactly who he is and seems pretty damn fearless. Well, that can be intimidating and even though it shouldn’t, it can make that first kid feel even worse about himself.”
What a perceptive quote, right? This quote is probably the best part of the book.
So, which kind of shittiness does this book deal with? Well, image. Image is the central theme in the book. We have one character (Jack) who has prosopagnosia which is a disorder where the person cannot recognise faces (fun fact: Brad Pitt and Lewis Carroll are rumoured to suffer from prosopagnosia) and another character (Libby) who cannot escape recognition and shitty treatment because of how she looks, because of her weight. Personally, I enjoyed image as the central theme as it is an incredibly important topic to address, especially for teenagers. Props to Niven for covering this topic realistically and honestly. Libby deals with it classily, and often-times conflictingly where at some points she suffers a lot of self-doubt but also has the courage to address it face-on with the flyers, audition and the swimming costume which, consequently, go viral. Her body-positive stance is the kind of confidence that we need to inspire in and for teens. There are various Atticus references in the book which encourages a few of the characters to learn how to empathise with people who are shitty to them such as Libby trying to understand how lonely the world must feel for a person like Jack who suffers from prosopagnosia where you can’t even recognise the people you love.
And… speaking of Jack, he is charming, intelligent and I especially loved the parts when you can see his passion shining through when he speaks about building things (like the robot!). Another thing is: yay for diversity as Jack and his brothers are half-black! Otherwise, he is pretty lack-lustre. He’s your textbook charming guy who sweeps the heroine of the feet.
The Annoying Love Angle
In the case of sweeping the heroine of her feet… I wasn’t feeling the chemistry. The part where they first speak to each properly in the car park is very forced as if Libby is forcing herself to relate to him. It was very awkward. Everything that ensued continued to feel forced except for Jack being in awe of Libby for refusing to change who she is, I mean, which sane person wouldn’t be impressed by this? What I did find endearing was that after Libby was rescued from her house and taken to the hospital, Jack sent her a letter to the hospital which said: “I’m rooting for you.” MAJOR AWWW. But then it was ruined with the whole: I may not recognise other people’s faces but I recognise your face, Libbbayyyyy xoxo spiel. MAJOR CRINGE.
What I Loved
The Conversation Circles that each are forced to partake in because of their misbehaviour are enlightening, fun and, best of all, packed with variety. It felt like a great take on team-building exercises and it does exactly like that, teaching the students to empower one another. The teacher who is in charge of the CC is wonderfully goofy and lovely and exactly the kind of teacher we all tend to want. My favourite part of it was when they had to state 5 things (or 3, can’t remember which) they like about each participant and thanks to it, it inspired me to create the 5 Things I Like About Myself Tag (which by the way I’m so pleased to see go full-circle on bloggers I follow).
What I also loved was the friendship between Libby and Bailey. It felt completely natural and Bailey, who is very popular, likes Libby for Libby and not out of pity. Libby, also, has to deal with another character who wants to be as fearless as her which Libby was initially offended by as she didn’t want to be a spokesperson for ‘fat’ people but she, later, begins to empathise and become more kinder to her.
What I Didn’t Love
The book, early on, notes that high school is nothing like how it’s portrayed in books… but, after a couple of POV’s, what spiel do we receive? The hot and popular mean girl. Really? Really, woman? Enough with this over-used trope! I don’t care if you used Bailey to show the difference between the two, it has to stop. The only time it was great to watch was with Regina George, and these hot, mean, popular girls are basic Gretchen Wiener’s.
As I mentioned right in the beginning, these very short POV’s do not work for me. I did expect longer POV’s because of her other work All The Bright Places (best YA book ever!). These are serious issues that need to be addressed with longer POV’s.
And the Damsels really can’t make costumes that fit people of different sizes? Isn’t that outright discrimination? One that shouldn’t even be in place in a SCHOOL and should warrant a freakin’ lawsuit? Girl, sue ‘em!
We, also, never get to find out more about Jack’s fathers affair with his teacher which just ended abruptly. I was really looking forward to the possibility of him sitting Jack down and explaining how this even happened but… nope. For a book that preaches empathy, we didn’t even get the chance to even walk in Jack’s fathers’ shoes at the very least.
“I figure it must be drug lords or a meth lab or maybe even a terrorist. I think it would be really damn cool to have a terrorist on our street because Amos, Indiana, is one boring-ass place.” NO, KID. Under no situation is it cool to have terrorists living on your street or anyplace because it means murder. Don’t be bloody stupid. FGS, who accepted this edit?
Both Violet (All The Bright Places) and Libby have heart-shaped faces. Niven, what’s up? Aren’t there other face-shapes? What is this heart-shaped face superiority and fascination?
People who want a light, inspiring, educational and quick read. This is To Kill A Mockingbird meets A Walk To Remember (albeit without the spirituality and, erm, spiriting aways). Here’s a Goodreads link for Holding Up The Universe if you want to add it to your TBR.
“I know what you’re thinking – if you hate it so much and it’s such a burden, just lose the weight, and then that job will go away. But I’m comfortable where I am. I may lose more weight. I may not. But why should what I weigh affect other people? I mean, unless I’m sitting on them, who cares?”
“You’re so worried that you can’t ever be close to anyone, but it’s not the face blindness that’s to blame; it’s you. All the smiling and faking and pretending to be what you think people want you to be. That’s what keeps you isolated. That’s what screws you up. You need to try being a real person.”
[Photo credit belongs to @JenniferNiven (Twitter) and Goodreads]