Review: Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

ARC: 392 pages
Publisher: Knopf Books
Release Date: October 4, 2016
Source of my copy: publisher
Series: none
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.

Holding Up the Universe was a very refreshing and inspiring read for me. It came to me at a time when I was thinking a lot about beauty and imperfections and how society defines both, particularly in the physical sense, and I really wanted to read a book that reminded me, "You are not alone." Now I can't say that Holding Up the Universe is my favorite read for the year thus far, but I can say that I like it a lot for its honesty, sincerity, and good timing. I'm giving it

What attracted me the most to Holding Up the Universe was its heroine Libby Strout, a girl who is not stereotypically beautiful and has a viral YouTube video to show how fat she is. For a while, before coming upon Holding Up the Universe, I'd noticed that I've read a lot of books with heroines who are so beautiful with their curvy bodies, soft hair, and soulful eyes, and although I know that they too have their share of insecurities and fears that make them not nearly so beautiful and perfect as they may look, the trend still bothered me. I started to hold bitterness against these characters I've always known and loved, and I knew it wasn't right. So when I met Libby Strout, overweight, friend-less, fierce Libby Strout, I was...glad, for lack of a better word. I've read very few books with heroines, let alone main characters, who were described as fat, really fat, and here was one who was very fat and yet carried herself with the confidence of a supermodel on a runway. I loved Libby. I loved her to bits. She had the kind of spunk I wish I had and the kind of strength I envied. As she wrote on bathroom mirrors mean comments about her own self, chased down a guy for teasing a girl whom she had just met, and tried out for the dance team by dancing to "The Warrior" by Scandal, I applauded her, rooted for her, and beamed with pride for her. Her every action to rise above those who strived to bring her down was impressive and moving. I will never forget Libby and the hope she gave me.

I also liked Jack Masselin from Holding Up the Universe, although he didn't leave much of an impression on me. I found it refreshing that Jack had a mental condition that not many hear about, and it was interesting to learn more about it and how Jack has dealt with it on his own so secretly all his life. With that kind of premise about him, he was a complex character; however, while reading, I was rather indifferent to him. Maybe I was so focused on Libby and her awesome-ness that I overlooked Jack and his cool-ness, but still, I think the only thing that makes Jack stand out among all YA heroes is his prosopagnosia; otherwise, he is just the typical high school guy who's trying to fit in and be cool by rolling with the frankly-overrated popular crowd. I will say that I liked Jack's protectiveness toward his family and his care for Libby, but I can't say that I swooned over him. He's neither my favorite nor my least favorite hero; Jack just didn't do it for me.

Yet, despite my differing views of Libby and Jack, I thought their relationship was well-developed and well-portrayed. What with the characters befriending each other to better their individual selves, Libby and Jack's relationship did not take the forefront of the story. They weren't attached at the hip; they each had their own goals and own agendas to accomplish, and they only got together when it was necessary or when they really needed each other. I really liked that Libby and Jack, no matter how close they got, did not become dependable on one another and that their relationship merely grew from genuine respect and admiration for each other's strengths and weaknesses. I swooned at all their cute moments, and I rooted for them always. I was happy for them when I reached the end.

The plot, which was alternately narrated by Libby and Jack, was, overall, compelling. I liked the alternating narration as well as the flashbacks of Libby and Jack because both elements really helped me better get to know and understand the characters. I also liked that it wasn't some kind of homily on beauty and compassion for others. It didn't have any of its characters get on their soap box and spout out their sob story; it merely showed all them acting and reacting as they thought they should, and their actions were what told the story and gave it meaning. I was never bored while reading Holding Up the Universe and that's not only because of its dynamic characters but also because of its interesting plot.

I'd also like to touch on the writing style of Jennifer Niven in Holding Up the Universe. This is the first book I've read by her, so I don't know if her utilization of italics and, on occasion, block lettering is typical of her writing, but having been exposed to it in Holding Up the Universe, I found it really...different. It wasn't bad--the italics and block lettering emphasized for me some specific lines that were telling of Libby and Jack's characters--but I thought it, at times, to be unnecessary, such as when emphasis is put on some words when such is already implied in context. The entire time I was reading Holding Up the Universe, I tried to predict the pattern of Niven's writing style, but since I couldn't really, I felt bothered, and that hindered my enjoyment of the book. However, again, Niven is a new-to-me author, and my bother is most likely just personal.

All in all, Holding Up the Universe was a great read with unique main characters, a sweet romance, and a moving plot. Despite my issues with the hero Jack and the writing style, I enjoyed this book that came to me at a perfect time. I recommend it to anyone who loves their contemporary YA and who is in for something refreshing and different. I also highly recommend it to anyone who is like me and needs--wants--a reminder that beauty isn't all physical and flaws are not all ugly and that there is so much wonder in you than you will ever know. 

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