Title: Holding Up the Universe
Author: Jennifer Niven
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary, Romance
Format: Hardcover, 400 pages
Publishing Information: October 4th 2016 by Knopf Books for Young Readers
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.
As soon as I’d heard about Jennifer Niven’s second novel coming out a few months back, I knew I had to have it, especially after reading her debut novel All The Bright Places last year. Her first book drew me in immediately, and I fell completely in love with her writing and her characters– and I experienced that all over again in her new book. Holding Up the Universe was another example of why Jennifer Niven is one of my favorite YA writers, because her characters are just so relatable and real and raw. My expectations and excitement for this new book did not fall short at all.
The story is told in alternating chapters from the voices of Jack Masselin and Libby Strout. From the beginning we are introduced to Jack, a guy with a too-cool-for-school attitude, a seemingly aloof and detached guy who has a soft heart and a secret. He can’t recognize faces (and no one else knows about it), which does hinder him from being close to anyone and he uses his behavior to prevent himself from knowing anyone too well. What Jennifer Niven does so well, from the first page, is her ability to really describe a flawed person, but not enough for us to hate him. Jack knows he’s messed up, and he knows he can be a shitty person, and he owns up to that. There are issues in his life (relating to his parents) and he tries to make sense of those, and keep his integrity as well. Something that I’ve always loved about the way Jennifer Niven creates her character is how she creates such tortured souls, without it sounding pretentious or too sculpted. Jack is real– he is impulsive and sometimes a jerk, but he is also sweet and cares about important things.
Libby Strout, on the other hand, is a character that is unapologetic and brave. Known as “America’s Fattest Teen,” Libby was the spectacle of social media and news, and after the loss of her mother, she was homeschooled for many years. She loses half the weight and eventually decides to start high school despite her anxiety and panic attacks. She refuses to let anyone get under her skin, no matter all the bullying and insults that get thrown in her way (it is high school, after all). Libby is a character we can all learn from, her vocal, vibrant and hopeful personality is one I can admire. She’s been through so much in her life, but she keeps a positive spirit and doesn’t give up.
It’s also the story about a relationship between the two characters, who are so different on the outside, but find so much connection through their shared anxieties that drew me in. The premise of the story– a boy who can’t recognize anyone’s faces, a girl who pursues her dreams despite her obstacles– is unique and refreshing. Niven also does a wonderful job with her setting, which in this case is in a small, rural and boring Indiana town. Similarly to her first novel, her characters are looking for an escape, not just physically, to a more lively place to live, but an escape from the confines of their minds and narrow-minded and routine-oriented peers.
Holding Up the Universe the ultimate YA book: a touching love story, characters that pull at your heartstrings and can find yourself in, and poignant and beautiful dialogue. I would HIGHLY recommend this book, and if you haven’t read her previous book, add that to your list as well!