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.
When I heard that Jennifer Niven was releasing a new book, I have to admit that I may have squealed just a little. There was so much hype surrounding the release of her previous novel, All the Bright Places — which I absolutely adored — and there’s been even more hype surrounding Holding Up The Universe. While some of the noise that’s been produced in relation to the release of this book hasn’t been 100% positive, I was still very excited to read it and see if it would sear itself on my heart like All the Bright Places did. Spoilers: I wasn’t disappointed. Holding Up The Universe is a heart-wrenching and stunningly realistic novel about learning to embrace the life you have and being unafraid of letting the world know you exist and that you matter.
The thing I loved most about this novel was its unique and vibrant characters, particularly Jack. While I’ve read novels that discuss the issue of body image, I’ve never read a book that has a character which suffers from prosopagnosia before, and that was fascinating. Before reading Holding Up the Universe, I’d never heard of this condition before — the inability to recognise the faces of people — and I loved learning more about it and seeing how it impacts people like Jack. It was interesting to see how Jack would learn to recognise people by their ‘indicators’, which are quirks or specific things about each person which helps him remember who they are, such as recognising his my by seeing her as Mum With Hair Up or Mum With Hair Down, or knowing his girlfriend by the fake mole she draws beside her eye. It was these smaller details about how he lived with prosopagnosia that made his story all the more realistic.
Libby was such a beautiful character to get to know. While her voice could be compared to Eleanor from Eleanor and Park or Willowdean from Dumplin’ as all of these characters become comfortable in their bodies and learn to not let the criticism from others get in the way of their happiness, Libby was original in her fiercely brave attitude and her refusal to let anyone stand in the way of what she wanted. One of the most refreshing things about Holding Up The Universe was seeing a character who had insecurities and flaws, but both Libby and Jack weren’t weighed down by these and weren’t made weak because of it. These imperfections, either real or imagined by the character in their self-doubt, didn’t make them weak or unconfident. Instead, we saw two fearless people who took on every challenge their lives threw at them and who became even stronger as a result of winning these battles.
One of the things I utterly adored about Holding Up The Universe, and indeed All The Bright Places, was the beautiful and poetic nature of Niven’s writing. Her ability to string together a series of words in a way that both captivated and entranced is truly remarkable, and one of the reasons why her novels are beloved by so many. But while her paragraphs are eloquent and almost have a faint rhythmic quality that propels you through the novel, she also possesses the ability to communicate her beliefs or the thoughts of her characters in a way that’s blunt and raw and sometimes conveys more emotion than a perfectly-flowing sentence could. Her ability to flit between both of these writing styles is something that makes Holding Up The Universe such a well-paced novel and one that you won’t want to put down.
The message of this book is what holds everything together: the characters, the plot and the finer details are all underpinned by one common thread — that you are wanted. I loved how ingrained this message was in Holding Up The Universe and how it allowed this book not just to be one that was enjoyable to read and follow the journeys of the characters, but also one that stays with readers long after the final page because of the way it impacts each of us personally. We don’t all have to have prosopagnosia or deal with society’s criticism of the way we look — this book will speak to everyone one of us because we’ve all had moments of doubt and insecurity, we’ve all gone times of heartbreak and difficulties with our friends, and we all have someone out there rooting for us. Through reading this book, we’re shown just how important we all are and that while we might not think we’re worth much at times, there is always, always someone who cares and someone who’s life wouldn’t be the same without us. And just incase no one’s told you today: You are loved. You are wanted. You are important.
Holding Up The Universe is a beautiful and honest portrayal of the struggles and triumphs of teenage life and leaves us with an understanding of our importance in the world and a recognition that our differences are what makes us beautiful. For anyone looking for a touching novel that will sweep you off your feet in a daze of raw and complex characters, poignant and moving writing and messages that will stay with you long after the final page, look no further than Holding Up The Universe.
Have you been lucky enough to read Holding Up The Universe yet? Are you a fan of Jennifer Niven’s writing? Did you enjoy All The Bright Places? Which do you think you preferred? Have you read Dumplin’ or Eleanor and Park? What do you think of the cover? (Personally, I think it’s beautiful – 10/10!) I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Thanks to Penguin Australia for providing me with an ARC of Holding Up The Universe!