Thursday, October 6, 2016

Book Review: "Holding up the Universe" by Jennifer Niven

Don't go into reading Jennifer Niven's new novel, Holding Up the Universe, thinking this is going to be identical to the phenomenal All the Bright Places (which made my list of the best books I read last year), in tone or the emotional power of its subject matter. I don't say this to denigrate Niven's new book in any way—I think with this book she set out to tell a different and more personal story, yet one with slightly more universal themes.

"You know how it's easy to believe everything is about you, especially when something goes wrong? Why me? Why do I have the worst luck ever? Why is the universe so mean? Why does everyone hate me? My mom used to say sometimes it's actually about the other person and you just happen to be there. Like sometimes the other person needs to learn a lesson or go through an experience, good or bad, and you're just an accessory in some way, like a supporting actor in whatever their scene happens to be."

Libby Strout has already had a brush with notoriety. Once dubbed "America's Fattest Teen," when she weighed 653 pounds at her heaviest and had to be cut out of her childhood home while the media watched, she's spent the last two years being home schooled while she recovered. Now 302 pounds lighter, she's ready to go back to high school and be someone different, someone with tremendous possibilities, new friends, maybe even someone that a guy could fall in love with.

When Libby meets Jack Masselin for the first time, it's an encounter that winds up with both of them getting detention, having to go to counseling, and participate in community service for their school. Jack has always seemed like someone who has it all, and knows it—he's good-looking, a bit cocky, and tends to swagger through school. But this bravado hides a significant vulnerability: Jack has prosopagnosia, or the inability to recognize faces, even those of his family members or people he's known all his life. Each time he sees someone, he has to try and figure out who they are, and he's not always successful, which leads to more uncomfortable situations than he'd like.

In Jack, Libby sees someone who is hiding their true self, someone who understands what it's like to have secrets and sadness and emotional anguish, while in Libby, Jack sees fearlessness, even when she's being mistreated. But as much as he's drawn to Libby he has to wonder if the persona he needs to maintain in order to protect his secret would ever really give someone like Libby attention. And Libby has to decide whether pursuing everything she wants without worrying about the consequences is actually worthwhile, or if she should just do her best to hide in the background.

Holding Up the Universe is a story about finding courage when you feel you don't have any, and not letting anyone sway you from what you want. It's also a book about finding hope after loss and difficult times, and how to hang on to that hope in the face of adversity. But more than that, this is a book about letting people see who you really are, and admitting when you need help.

There were things I really loved about this book and things that bothered me. I liked some of the characters very much, and loved how Niven revealed their complexities little by little. This certainly was a unique story in many ways, but it didn't feel gimmicky in any way, and there was so much emotion and heart in this story, but it never felt emotionally manipulative.

What bothered me is just how cruel Libby's classmates were (even if I know this fact better than I'd like to admit, even all these years later), how unending that cruelty was, and how she really wasn't willing to tell anyone what was going on. There were a lot of things which remained unsaid in this book, and I found that frustrating. I also admit that I wondered whether someone like Jack would actually find himself falling for a girl who still weighed 350 pounds, and that distracted me a little bit.

I issued my warning at the start of my review because I'll admit I went in hoping for another All the Bright Places, so some of my disappointment was my own unrealistic expectations. But once I gave it a fair chance, I really enjoyed Holding Up the Universe. It's a book that deserves to be read on its own merit, and although it didn't touch my heart as much as Niven's last book, it still proved Niven's tremendous talent.

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