Another book I started without reading anything about it, not even the blurb! Love, love, love.
Holding up the Universe (2016) tells the story of Libby, formerly ‘America’s Fattest Teen’, and now re-entering society after losing weight, and Jack, who has lived with a condition called prosopagnosia, that is: face-blindness, but has never told anyone. The slow intertwining of their stories is crafted in such a mature and realistic manner that their relationship develops beautifully. It also helps that as individual characters they are both given a lot of depth and attention: Libby’s self-confidence and love which are self-taught are rare to behold in a contemporary YA, where low self-esteem seems to be the norm. Jack, the popular guy figure, subverts this image and shows the readers a multi-dimensional character who is true to life and the human experience. The contrast between their conditions – the assumption that obesity is a societal norm, and prosopagnosia is an exceptional circumstance – is slowly but surely diluted to show that each are individual but also not alone: Libby is determined to make people acknowledge her as not just ‘another fat girl’, and Jack soon finds out that quite a lot of people suffer with prosopagnosia and that there is help.
Having read reviews on Goodreads, it seems that some readers have had a problem with this idea – that within their struggles, Jack and Libby find strength and support through each other – particularly with the interpretation that Libby needs Jack to validate her, but I just don’t think this is fair reading. Rather, it’s perfectly okay, and even necessary, for a book to admit that we rely on other people to help us develop; to feign self-actualisation and realisation is simply not a responsible message for a YA writer to put out. I’d actually also further argue that Libby is the one who teaches Jack the most, as she spreads her self-love to him, and helps him to crawl out of the ‘popular guy’ shell and grow into his true self.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Niven is a sensitive, creative, and realistic writer who captures what I often felt John Green attempted to in his writing: a sense of the real, quirky, true teenage experience. John Green, however, often clouded this with pretension and over-complicating, but Niven comes pretty damn close.