Holding Up the Universe
Last year, author Jennifer Niven raced to the top of the bestseller list with ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES. Ever since then, teens across the nation have waited anxiously for her sophomore release, HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE. The beautifully-titled book released this month and it does not disappoint.
For a few years now, young adult authors have made a huge effort to appeal to often-marginalized groups of people. In HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE, Niven takes a close look at two wildly different teens dealing with very different and often under-discussed issues. Although readers will have to suspend some disbelief to follow this unlikely pairing, Niven’s ability to dig deep and really speak from a teen’s point of view makes this a smart, important book.
"Although readers will have to suspend some disbelief to follow this unlikely pairing, Niven’s ability to dig deep and really speak from a teen’s point of view makes this a smart, important book."
Libby Strout is many things --- bright, vivacious, full of the dance and fat. Once dubbed “America’s Fattest Teen” when she had to be cut out of her house, Libby has more or less lived in hiding for years. After receiving counseling and nutritional guidance, she is now ready to step first in high school for the first time. A scary idea for any teen, Libby has the added pressures of her national “fame” and the fear that she will recognize people from her past who either teased or refused to help her when she was in need.
In terms of polar opposites, Jack Masselin is about as far from Libby Strout as one can get. Smooth, cool and such a joker that he’s practically a bad person, Jack seems to have it all. He has an incredible secret, though: he cannot recognize faces. He knows that he lives with his mother, father and two brothers and that his girlfriend is, well, a babe, but he cannot actually remember what any of them look like. Instead, he relies on “identifers”: mom both wears her hair up or down and lives in the house; his little brother, Dusty, has an afro.
So how do these two teens come together? To understand that, you need to know that Jack is maybe not the best guy around. His friends are total jerks, to put it nicely, and they decide to play a game called “fat girl rodeo” --- which is exactly what it sounds like. In a misguided attempt at chivalry, Jack targets Libby, knowing that his friends would do far worse to her. Like the hero she is, Libby rips Jack off and punches him, landing them both in counseling.
While this may sound like the makings of a typical rom-com, Niven handles her subjects with care, allowing them to set the pace for their friendship and, later, romance. As the two learn about one another, they begin to discover that, their issues aside, they really aren’t that different, and their differences not only make them interesting to one another, but endlessly attractive. Libby is dazzled by Jack’s easy confidence, while Jack is amazed by her braveness and ability to turn even the most mundane event into a “moment.”
Of course, teenage love is never so simple, so Libby and Jack are forced through some incredibly painful moments. While Jack’s condition is arguably more interesting --- mainly because I had never heard of it before reading --- it is Libby who steals the show. All of her hopes and dreams are marked by her weight and yet nothing could be more boring to her than the number on the scale. She is so much more than her weight and she is not afraid to prove it by dancing circles around those who would bully her.
There are few authors I would trust to handle the story of a bigger girl, particularly if they are not big themselves. That said, Niven gives life to Libby and handles her fears, anxieties and dreams with such love and adoration that she truly elevates this novel into something special. While I will say that it was difficult to believe that a formerly-600-pound girl would meet and fall in love with a boy with prosopagnosia, once I gave in to the idea it was easy to get totally swept away.
Reviewed by Audrey Slater on October 17, 2016