Oct 4, 2016

Review: Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

TitleHolding Up the Universe
Author: Jennifer Niven
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publishing Date: October 4, 2016
Pages/Format: 400, ARC
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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.

Book in One Word: Hmmm.

I was actually rather excited for Holding Up the Universe. After reading the excerpt that came with the cover reveal, I was immediately pulled in by the voice, and I love love love when that happens--and I wanted more. When I received an ARC, I looked forward to diving in to Niven's latest, despite the fact that I still hadn't (and haven't) reviewed All the Bright Places, a book I read ten months ago and still don't know how I feel about. But I finally sat down to read Holding Up the Universe, eager and ready to read a voice-centric novel, hoping I'd love it--and, like Niven's previous novel, I'm not sure where her latest stands.

Holding Up the Universe tells the story of Jack and Libby, two teens who are outliers in their own way. Jack is the cool guy at school everyone loves, but no one knows that he has prosopagnosia (also known as face blindness), which makes him unable to recognize people's faces, including those of his family, and even his own. (I didn't even know such a thing existed until I read Bone Gap last year.) Then there's Libby, who was once the Fattest Teen in America and had to have the walls of her house torn down so she could be taken out of it. Now Libby's lost weight (though she's still considered overweight) and is ready to take back her life, go to high school, dance, and face the people of the world. But when Jack and Libby are forced to work together, they learn there's more to life and self-worth than what you can--and can't--see.

I don't have any experience with being overweight or face blindness (the latter of which I still can't fathom and wrap my head around), so I can't say whether or not either was handled well or properly in Holding Up the Universe. But I can say that something about this book didn't click with me, that there was a sort of failed connection. While I wanted to read it and liked reading it, eventually I realized that the powerful voice at the beginning of the book was no longer doing it for me. It either wasn't enough or had waned off, but the book was no longer really grabbing me. I wanted to know how it would end--didn't know how it would end--but I had a bit of a struggle with staying invested in the story, and though I cared, I didn't care, if that makes any sense.

My biggest "struggle" of sorts with Holding Up the Universe was probably Libby. I get that her life hasn't been a fairy tale, what with being known as America's Fattest Teen and losing her mother at a young age, but there was a sense of realism missing in her character. Maybe it's just me and my introvertedness and the fact that I could never do such a thing, but Libby does some things that are...very outgoing. Over the top. Dramatic. Built from confidence. They're things I can't imagine someone actually ever doing, but she does them--and I struggled to see the realism and believability there. I mean, there's no doubt that Libby is fierce as hell, but still. Maybe it's just me. But it's a part of the book that I very much noticed.

The thing about Holding Up the Universe is the people. And let me tell you, people are mean. They are cruel and they are vicious, and why Libby's weight is anyone's business and why anyone needs to comment on it or react to it is utterly beyond me. Libby is a walking target wherever she goes, and people try to hit the bullseye and where it will hurt the most every damn time. (And people wonder why I like animals more than people. I mean, come on, people.) People are assholes, okay? And there's no joy in reading about these people and witnessing how everyone reacts to Libby, even if she stands there and takes it. She fights back, and even though, like I said, I found some of it unrealistic, Libby will stand there like a giant middle finger telling everyone to fuck off and that she doesn't give a shit--even though she really, truly, deeply does.

It's the cruelty of others that brings her and Jack (ah, yes, Jack, he's the other main character!) together, but Jack's issue is different: everyone is a shape, but he can't tell who's who. He might think he's sitting next to his best friend but it's really his worst enemy; that might be his mom at the dining room table, but he doesn't know for sure; is that really his reflection in the mirror? Does he look like that? He may think that now, but the next time he looks in the mirror it'll be like looking at a whole new person over and over and over again. Most people know other people by their faces. Jack has to try to know--and recognize and remember--people by their voices, their hair, their quirks and attributes. So when he and Libby meet (the circumstances of which I don't understand the necessity of), it's a relationship forged with little judgement and two people forced to know each other by what's inside, not their appearances.

I really don't know what else to say about Holding Up the Universe, and I'm honestly surprised that this review is as long as it is. Granted, I failed to talk about Jack much (I just think most of the story has to do with and revolves around Libby), but his and Libby's story is certainly a unique and interesting one, and I liked them both, though probably Jack more so. The two teens have two different issues--one visible, one not--but both have something in common: Libby's weight and Jack's face blindness have taught them that appearances aren't everything and that it's important to look at what's inside a person, not outside. It's a story filled with some characters you'll love and others you'll want to burn at the stake, and Jennifer Niven certainly knows how to write and create the very important element of voice. I just wish that the voice that started off so strong could have held me for the entirety of the book, and that Holding Up the Universe was a book I'd hold close to my heart.

Did I like it? Yes.
Did I love it? No.
Would I reread it? Maaaaaaaybe.
Would I purchase it? I'm okay without it, I think. 
Who would I recommend it to? People who like characters who aren't shiny and perfect chosen ones and who have real-life issues, voice, and stories that can be uplifting and also send your mood down to the dumps.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.


  1. prosopagnosia is interesting. I saw that pop up recently somewhere and I don't remember if it was another book or a show.
    I don't think I would agree with Libby's character either, so I can understand the struggle.

  2. Lovely review, Rachel! After reading that old synopsis on Goodreads, I've always been uncertain about this book. I'm really against romanticizing mental illnesses too hence .. 'All the Bright Places'. Anyway, I might give this a try though!

    anna | annaish

  3. Thanks for this review. I love how honest it was. I actually put this book on my wish list because I read three other reviews where they loved the heck out of it and I wanted to read another voice-centric book (those are my jam) but I'm actually really glad to have read yours as it kind of balances everything out.

    I'm still excited to read the book but I'm glad that the book isn't all love and roses.

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