Title: Holding Up the Universe
Author: Jennifer Niven
Published in: 2016
Genres: romance, contemporary fiction, realistic fiction, mental health/mental illness
“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.”
Libby Strout lost her mother when she was 10. After that she dealt with pain by binge eating. By the time she was 13, she weighed over 600 pounds and was named “America’s Fattest Teen.” She hasn’t gone to an actual school since 5th grade. Now 16 and 300 pounds less, she’s about to enter the world again and go to high school for the first time. As soon as she gets there, people instantly judge her and don’t look past her weight to see who see really is. Jack Masselin is popular and liked by his peers. Over the years, he’s learned how to fit in. But he has prosopagnosia, or face-blindness. He can’t recognize faces, not his family’s, not his own. So he makes sure to not get to close to anyone. That is until Libby. After both are involved in an incident that ends up with both of them in Conversation Circle, a type of group counseling, they begin to talk. And then they begin to spend time together and get closer. They make each other feel seen, not just on the outside, but really seen for who they are. But when Jack decides that he can’t see Libby anymore, it appears their relationship is over. But they might just forgive each other and get back together.
Libby is a girl who was hurt by her mother’s sudden, unexpected death. She coped with the pain by overeating. At one point, she became housebound. When she gained so much weight that it came to the point where she got stuck in her house and had to be rescued, she realized something had to change. Since then, she’s worked with doctors and counselors to lose weight and deal with the emotional pain and her anxiety. She’s received a lot of hate mail and negative messages due to her weight. Libby’s easy to sympathize with due to everything that has happened to her. But she’s strong on her own and likes herself for who she is. Despite her weight issues, she has a good body image. And that’s something to admire. She’s also kind, caring, and confident.
Jack’s popular and well liked and he wants it to stay that way. His friends are mean, but think that what they do is funny and he goes along with it so they’ll like him. So he does this thing called “Fat Girl Rodeo,” where someone hugs a girl who’s overweight and tries to hang on as long as possible. Because of this, Jack at first seems unlikable and like a jerk. But he’s not really a bad person, just someone who did this bad thing. Later he realizes his mistake and that he’s truly sorry. He also has prosopagnosia, so he can’t remember faces of anyone, which causes a lot of problems in his everyday life. To get by, he uses identifiers, specific characteristics that stand out. Prosopagnosia is a rare brain disorder that not many people have heard of. Before reading this book, I had never heard of it, but it was interesting to learn about it. Jack tells Libby about it in a letter, but doesn’t want to tell anyone else. As you read more, you realize that Jack isn’t like his friends. He isn’t comfortable with the mean things they do and begins defending Libby around them.
The plot was interesting, but slow. Libby and Jack didn’t really start hanging out until halfway through the book, when they go to Bloomington for Jack to get tested and get an official diagnosis for his prosopagnosia. Then their relationship progressed quickly, going on their first date soon after that. This felt unrealistic, considering their history. And then Jack decided he couldn’t be with Libby anymore, ending their relationship almost as quickly as it began. Things stay this way until the end of the book, when they go to a party.
To me, the best part of the book was when Libby stood up for herself in the hallways in front of the entire school. She had been receiving anonymous messages saying “You’re not wanted.” For awhile, she just stuffed them into her backpack and didn’t do anything about it. But then she decided to do something. She worn a bright purple bikini and wrote, in marker, “You are wanted,” on her stomach. Then she passed out letters to everyone, saying that they are wanted and to not let anyone convince you otherwise. Someone made a video of her and she went viral, with more positive comments than negative ones.
Holding Up the Universe was a good book. I thought Jennifer Niven’s other book, All the Bright Places was better, though. I recommend Holding Up the Universe for anyone looking for a romance or contemporary novel.
Rating: 4/5 Stars