Book Review · Young Adult

Holding Up the Universe – Jennifer Niven

Everyone lives with labels. From an early age, people tell us who they think we are, and those words stick to us. Usually the harshest labels come during the middle and high school years, and if we’re lucky we can shake those off during our twenties.

I’ve had some positive labels given to me, like ‘nice’ and ‘smart’, but there’s one that’s still hard to shake, ‘chubby’. I actually wasn’t that overweight in high school, but I was about 40-50 lbs heavier than all my friends. I just happened to be  friends with girls with great genes and even better metabolisms.

With the stress of college and impending adulthood my weight shot up. For a few years I became a cliche of yo-yo dieting: Always taking a step back and somehow heavier. And everybody had their two cents to share about my weight.

I remember when I was twenty I went shopping with a group of friends and a mentor of ours joined us. Its silly, but I idolized her and thought she was the type of person I wanted to be when ‘I grew up’. We all went to one of those stores that caters to sizes 3 to 9, so I was on the sidelines commenting. I saw a beautiful dress and causally said to my mentor that I wished I could try it on.

She said very sharply, ‘Well then, lose weight.’ And then, just like that, her smile was back on when her favorite girl of the bunch came out of the dressing room. The statement was simple enough, but I realize now that that was the first crack in my illusion of her.

I didn’t want her, or my family, or my friends, to endlessly chime in on my weight issues. I just wanted them to accept me now, and every comment made me feel as though I had to be different. I know they mean well, but I am much more than my weight.

I know what it’s like to hold up the universe.

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“His eyes turn cold, and there it is – the hatred a total stranger can feel for you, even if they don’t know you, simply because they think they know you or hate what you are.” (pg.39)

In their own ways, both Libby Strout and Jack Masselin carry heavy burdens. For Libby, it goes beyond her physical frame, as she is trying to find her place at high school. She is living with past tragedy and present anxiety, and doing everything she can to regain independence and agency in her life.  

For Jack, he is living a lie. For years Jack has built a persona of detachment and fostered a ‘too cool for school’ attitude, but in reality he has to remain detached because he has prosopagnosia, face-blindness. His life is a room full of strangers.

(Before I get far, let me state that Jack ‘sees’ people just fine, but it’s the association that leaves him. His mother could be looking straight at him, look away, and when she turns back she becomes a stranger again.

So yes, he sees her face and body just fine. For my people out there getting upset over nothing.)

I loved Libby as a character, but I found Jack’s story the most interesting. To many of us, we think that if we were suspicious of possessing a mental illness that impacted our daily lives, we would confide in our love ones.

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But Jack is terrified; terrified of becoming a further burden on a family that is already dealing with cancer and infidelity, terrified of losing his identity with his friends.

So to keep up the illusion that all is well, he has to construct that reality around him. Friends Jack should have ditched years ago, he can’t. He relies upon their familiarity and knowing their ‘identificators’.

Instead of doing the right thing and ditching those friends, they pull him further down by pulling him into an awful high school game that targets overweight girls.

I don’t want to spoil how they meet, but I do want to note that the setup was probably the weakest part for me. Not that I don’t believe in the cruelty of high school boys, I just wish I got more from Jack’s perspective, about  why he felt like this was the only option.

To me it makes perfect sense why Jack is drawn to Libby. Libby is brave in a way that he wished he could be, to be his real self in front of others. Libby knows who she is and what she loves (which includes dance!), her challenge is to prove to others that they can’t steal her worth.

“I know what you’re thinking – if you hate it so much and it’s such a burden, just lose the weight, and then that job will go away. But I’m comfortable where I am. I may lose more weight. I may not. But why should what I weigh impact other people? I mean, unless I’m sitting on them, who cares?” (pg. 310)

Well, before I stop, guess I should touch on the ‘controversy’ with this book or aka when people lost their shit over a synopsis of a book.

More people than I realized got very offended by the synopsis of the book. Not gonna lie, the synopsis isn’t the greatest, but I don’t understand why people are so pissed.

Most synopsis are terrible because they are written by the publishing house’s marketing dept. Geez, I’ve seen spoilers in a synopsis before, so I don’t rely heavily on them. I like reviews, word-of-mouth, and proven authors.

If a synopsis makes or breaks a book for you, then that’s your prerogative, but I think you’re going to miss out on a good book.

Also, for everyone who’s getting their panties in a bunch because Jennifer Niven is skinny, here’s a quick google search for you:

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Why are people upset by this!?! I’m just happy to get a lead character who is different, one that is full of positivity despite seeing the worst of humanity.

Alright, rant over

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From the bottom of my heart, I truly hope Holding Up the Universe does well. I loved this book, and I was completely engrossed in Libby and Jack’s story.

I don’t care if that offends anybody. I know Niven gets a lot of shit for ‘romanticizing’ mental illness, especially after All The Bright Things, but I don’t think that’s her intention at all.

I think she’s just try to normalize things that we consider taboo, whether its mental illness or overweight lead characters. Just because teens are dealing with these issues doesn’t mean they are worthless.

hutu7Score: 9/10

 

In the Margins:

  • Also both We Always Lived in the Castle and To Kill a Mockingbird are highlighted. Bonus!hutu3   hutu4
  • This Friday:  I throw my hat into the discussion about The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. 
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