Summary: 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 see who she really is. Since her mum’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 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 art of fitting in. What no one knows is that Jack has a secret: he can’t recognise 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.
Thoughts: Jennifer Niven once again gives us a poignant novel tackling subjects that people like to avoid or ignore or even things that aren’t really known unless it affects you. Her first YA novel was All The Bright Places which gave us Violet and Finch and the best depiction of depression I’ve seen in a novel. The character of Finch was one I connected to because he deeply reminded me of a friend of mine (who now adores the novel for the same reason). Because of this love for all the Bright Places, I was extremely excited for Holding Up The Universe and got it the second it was available.
Niven didn’t disappoint. From picking up the new novel I knew I was in for an adventure unlike any I’d had with a book. This book was going to teach my something but not in a dull textbook way, rather in a human way. Before reading holding up the universe I hadn’t heard of Prosopagnosia (or face-blindness) however having read the novel I feel like I have at least a basic understanding of what it is and how it is to live with it. The character – Jack – who has Prosopagnosia feels real and from the way, his chapters are formed I found myself not seeing people. I won’t claim it made me understand because that would be wildly unfair however it made my empathise.
At the end of the novel in the acknowledgements, Niven mentions that a family member has it as well so it’s easy to understand why she picked the topic. However, outside of knowing someone with the illness it’s so clear that Jennifer did her research. We are given information about the illness, about what is medically known, what is unknown and the fact that Brad Pitt might have it, however, the information isn’t spoon fed and it certainly doesn’t read like she just went on Wikipedia and copied some text (unlike other books I’ve read). Jack feels like a person who is living and learning.
Then on the other side, we have Libby. Libby was once America’s fattest team and literally had to be cut out of her home because she didn’t fit through the door. Since then she has lost a lot of weight but she is still fat. She’s still a very large person and she’s just going back to school, starting her junior year. Libby is a confusing mixture of anxiety and take-no-shit. She’s an extremely relatable character. Most high-school aged girls will have gone through some sort of body-image issues, even if it’s not to the extreme of Libby. For me, there was an added level of relatability because I know what it’s like to enter a school with people who think they know your story from little things that they have heard.
For the most part, Jack and Libby are great but there are moments I want to scream at both of them to stop what the hell are you doing but I loved that because it made them more relatable characters. I adored the way Jennifer added in the families of Jack and Libby. They have both experienced problems there: Libby has lost her Mum and Jack is away of the affair his Father is having. However, unlike some YA authors, Jennifer doesn’t render the parents of teenagers as useless. Libby’s Dad and Jack’s parents and brother all play an important part in what is going on for the protagonists and it’s a very heartwarming scene when Jack tells his entire family about his Prosopagnosia.
My only regret is that I read this novel so quickly. I desperately want more YA novels from Jennifer Niven, I adore the way she writes about different issues.