Author: Jennifer Niven
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publishing Date: October 2016
Number of Pages: 392 pages
Genre: Young Adult Fiction, Romance, Contemporary Fiction
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. Since 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. I know the part I want to play here at MVB High. I want to the the girl who can do anything.
Everyone thinks they know Jack Masselin, too. Yes, he’s got swagger, but he’s also mastered the art of fitting in. what no one knows is that Jack has a 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 own 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-Libby and Jack are both angry, and then surprised. Because the more they spend time together, the less alone they feel. Because sometimes when you meet someone, it changes the world, theirs and yours.
Holding Up The Universe is one of twenty books in My 2017 Top 20 Reading List because of a positive review I read about it and from the posts of my friends on social media. These commendations ultimately piqued my curiosity, so I ended up purchasing this book when I saw it on a book store last year.
To be honest, I am quite reserved about reading young adult (YA) fictions. The thing I dislike about young adult fiction is the tendency to play along banal issues. Moreover, I have noticed that the story lines of most YA books tend to run on the same line. The plot tend to be very predictable, but at least most try to inspire and help teenagers who are encountering the issues that are highlighted in the book.
Every YA book I’ve encountered is about two relatable imperfect individuals who have either an illness or a dark past they are trying to overcome. Because of this, they are faced with numerous challenges. In facing these challenges, their paths cross, they fall in love, they fall apart, then eventually they reconcile. That’s what a typical YA fiction is – a teeny version of a fairy tale book. Because of these reasons, I try to avoid typical YA fiction books. It takes something very special to create a great YA fiction that I will read. Nonetheless, my reservations doesn’t stop me from indulging in one occasionally.
One of these few YA fictions I’ve read is, or at least chosen to read, is Jenniver Niven’s Holding Up the Universe. Unfortunately, I found the book no different from my expectations of a typical YA books. It felt like it is playing on that same old clichéd story line most YA fictions use. For me, this book falls into that stereotypical young adult story. But just because it falls into that YA stereotype doesn’t necessarily warrant a bad book.
The story revolves around two flawed teenagers, Libby Strout and Jack Masselin. Libby Strout had to fight obesity after the untimely death of her mother. Her father, also drown in grief, didn’t intervene in Libby’s obsession with food, which ultimately resulted to her unprecedented body expansion and eventually being touted as America’s Fattest Teen. Because of her extreme case of obesity, health workers needed a crane to pull her off from her old house. It was made more sensational by its being televised.
From that point on, she began the long road towards recovery, including consulting a psychologist. However, she still remained secluded from the bigger world by being home schooled. Overcoming her fears and doubts, she finally decided to go back to school. This is where her encounter with Jack Masselin begins.
Jack Masselin is one of Martin Van Buren High School’s more popular student. He is a bright student. But there’s something innately wrong with him, he cannot recognize the faces of the people who meets on a daily basis. He has prosopagnosia and nobody knows it but him. Not his friends and not even his family. Libby’s and Jack’s worlds collide when Jack’s friends planned to harass Libby in front of the entire school. Jack, believing that he is doing Libby a favor, went ahead with the plans. In the end, when Jack tried to harass Libby, he got knocked out but that is before he left a letter in her bag explaining his disorder. Eventually both ended in detention.
As any YA book goes, they eventually fell in love, in spite of the numerous obstacles they had to face. For Jack, there his ex-girl friend, Caroline ; his unruly friends; and ultimately there’s his disorder. For Libby, there is her father who is ever protective of her; there is her past; and there’s the entire world planting doubts in her mind. Who in there right mind would fall in love with an obese girl? But will they fight for their love or will they give up?
The thing that stands out the best is Jennifer Niven’s writing which was straightforward and easy to grasp. She wrote in the first person perspective, Jack’s and Libby’s which almost always works for this particular genre as it makes the characters more sincere and relatable. For a YA fiction, the characters’ sincerity and relatability are very important to string all the elements together. At least that is how I see things.
Niven used profound lines to establish a very realistic book. By sticking it with what is there makes her work effective in conveying thoughts and ideas to the reader. She used these lines to full effect all through out the story. She kept it simple and clean which I guess really worked on her favor because I find the story too bland, too common. I have to commend her though for perfectly mixing recurring teen issues like obesity, homosexuality and bullying while also adding into the mix unusual but eye-opening realities like Jack’s prosopagnosia.
Did I enjoy the book? Quite. You see, it barely deviated from the typical young adult fiction that I have previously described above. It is just too much of a typical YA work though it is a simple but relatable one. The romantic angle fell short. My heart barely lurched the way it did with The Fault In Our Stars’ Hazel Grace and Augusus. I guess the book focused too much on the characters’ imperfections which is really not a bad thing. Although the characters have undergone dark phases and felt heavy emotions, the book is a good read if you are looking for a light read.
I liked Libby and her vivacious personality. She is that ultimate heroine every outcast badly wants to have in their life. Her strong personality and steely resolve makes her the epitome of a modern day teen hero. By auditioning for her school’s cheer dance troupe and by being in a relationship with a guy thinner than her, she proving to everyone that a “different” individual can do what a “normal” individual does. She is a friend everyone wants to have because of the way she motivates others, as can be read in her letter:
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
Ultimately, the book is about two things: hope after being down and acceptance. These are two things that we are too familiar with but sometimes get lost in tough with. Through Libby, the book echoes a voice of hope, a message to everyone that they are better than who they think they are, that they are wanted, that are loved in spite of how they look or what they believe in. Sans a preachy tone, the book embodies the acceptance of imperfect, within ourselves and with others. To sum it all up, the book says that in order for others to accept us, we must first accept ourselves, both the good things and the bad. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Rating: 4 Stars
About the Author
Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Jennifer Niven is an American author who writes both fiction and nonfiction books. Her first novels were for adults before shifting to young adult fiction. Her first young adult book is All The Bright Places which was published in 2015. Holding Up The Universe is her second young adult book.