Review: Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

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Synopsis

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.

Author’s Website  |  Goodreads  |  Amazon  |  Book Depository

After becoming an emotional wreck after reading All the Bright Places, a book that I had a couple of problems with but nonetheless enjoyed, I was prepared for another emotional rollercoaster with this book. However, I didn’t shed any tears whilst reading this novel and, while my lack of tears doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy this book on an emotional level, I think that I had expectations that were a bit too high and weren’t quite met with this novel.

Holding Up the Universe is a unique story that follows two teenagers—Libby and Jack. While Libby attempts to adjust to attending public school after struggling with obesity and dealing with grief due to her mother’s death, Jack must deal with prosopagnosia, a cognitive disorder that prevents him from being able to recognize or remember faces. Their stories eventually intertwine with each other and readers get to explore the complexity of their relationship as they discover both the differences and similarities among themselves.

While this book was a good read, I can’t say that it didn’t have its flaws. And although it was different from most young adult contemporaries because of the uniqueness of the characters, it felt as if the characters were being heavily characterized by their conditions.

The rest of this review is spoiler-free.


Plot

The plot of this novel was definitely unique in the sense that the situations that the two main characters were in were situations that I’ve never read about in a young adult contemporary novel before. However, this novel had quite a few clichés and tropes. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not very picky with those types of things, especially when reading a young adult contemporary novel. But it’s the type of clichés and tropes that were used that made this novel less enjoyable for me. There were times when it felt as if the characters were being put together in a relationship in order to establish the two-outsiders-meet-and-fall-in-love trope.

Let me note here that the story did have a good underlying meaning to it and I deeply commend the author for shedding light onto subjects such as bullying, struggles with self-confidence, and more, but I feel as if the attempt to form a quick romance between the two characters sometimes overshadowed the themes of self-love and body positivity that this book set out to accomplish. It took me a while to see the chemistry between the two main characters really appear and, even when there were scenes where I felt as if the romance between the characters was finally developing a bit in a realistic way, I was never fully convinced of a genuine connection between Libby and Jack.

There were moments during this novel that I enjoyed that made me smile and laugh, and then there were others that I related to and some that I cringed at. I sped through this book within one sitting, so I was obviously enveloped within this story because it really did have relatable moments, the plot was intriguing, and I wanted to know what happened to the characters. And while I enjoyed the majority of the plot points that occurred, the ending left me with mixed feelings. Part of me wanted to feel happy because it was a really heart-warming and nice ending, but another part of me wanted to point out that it seemed like one of those unrealistic, too-good-to-be-true endings that felt slightly unfulfilling.


Characters

I think I enjoyed Libby’s character the most within this novel. She had some very witty and sassy lines that I loved and I really liked how she was always so sure of herself. I think the only problems that I ever had with Libby were the decisions that she would make sometimes because they were contradictory at times (i.e. she would tell a girl to report bullying to the school, but she didn’t want to report her own problems to the school), but nonetheless I really liked her as a character.

“It’s my experience that the people who are most afraid are the ones who hide behind mean and threatening words.”

Although I liked Jack as a character (I loved the fact that he was always rooting for Libby and, let’s be honest, some of his lines were really swoon-worthy), I felt very detached to him at times and I noticed that this is the same problem that I had with Finch’s character in All the Bright Places. I felt as if he was defined by his cognitive disorder which, I mean, I get that he’s had to deal with prosopagnosia and it’s obviously going to change parts of his personality, but there are other components to an individual’s personality that were missing from his character. I’m currently taking a sociology class so perhaps I’m analyzing his character too much, but at times he felt somewhat one-dimensional. I felt that between struggling with keeping his condition a secret and dealing with his familial problems, there was never really any time for Jack’s character to fully develop or blossom in a way that I was hoping for. And then there were moments where Jack would think things that really bothered me, especially when it pertained to Libby’s weight. So while there were moments where I really did like Jack and I wanted to know where his story would go, I never grew really attached to his character.

Shoutout to Jack’s brother, Dusty, who was one of my favorite characters in this book!


Writing Style

I really enjoy Jennifer Niven’s style of writing. It’s witty and relatable and she makes these references to so many current trends that make the book realistic and more fun to read.

However, I will say that I found the pacing of this novel to be a bit off in certain places. While the pace of the beginning of the story felt very fluid and steady, there was a point where I thought the story was ready to end but I was only two-thirds of the way through the novel. The pacing fell to a pretty slow pace towards the end of the story.


Overall Thoughts

Overall, I think that Holding Up the Universe was a good read. Immediately after I finished reading this novel, I thought that it was amazingly deep and realistic. But now, after having time to process the story in its entirety, I’ve found that there are multiple flaws within this book that I can’t set aside when rating and reviewing this novel. I wish that the characters were written in a more composite way rather than being so heavily defined by their conditions and I think that the character and relationship developments weren’t executed as well as I was hoping for. I appreciate the author introducing unique and different characters into the realm of young adult contemporary writing; I just wish these characters were more complex and better developed. Nonetheless, while I didn’t completely fall in love with this book, I can say that, like All the Bright Places, its main purpose is to spread important life lessons and a message that readers everywhere should hear: “You are wanted.”

“Dear friend,

You are not a freak. You are wanted. You are necessary. You are the only you there is. Don’t be afraid to leave the castle. It’s a great big world out there.

Love, a fellow reader”


So, have you read Holding Up the Universe? What did you think about it? Comment below!

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