Review of HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE by JENNIFER NIVEN
(review based on an advance reading copy)
I’m a sucker for a strong, smart female protagonist, but when everyone’s trying to write an original character sometimes unique becomes a little less original. My point is that, pleased as I am that there are so many worthy heroines in contemporary literature, some of the less layered ones start to blend. Not Libby. Her incredible strength, spirit, and humor feel completely fresh and specific to her experiences.
After Libby’s mom’s death several years ago, she started eating her feelings. Not a little, but a lot. Until she becomes morbidly obese and confined to her bed. Then she made headlines when a crane had to remove the side of her house and lift her out of her room so she could be taken to a hospital. Fast forward to today and Libby’s lost a lot of weight (though she’s still big enough to attract stares and whispering) and she’s venturing out of home school and into a public high school.
In contrast, we also follow Jack, one of the most popular guys at school and a typical jerk. Except the atypical secret that no one knows is that Jack has face blindness. Terrified of becoming a target rather than a weapon, Jack hides his inability to distinguish faces with an egocentric attitude. When you’re popular, people aren’t as surprised when your gaze slides over their face without any recognition, even when you ignore someone supposedly a friend.
Somehow Jack finds himself drawn to Libby. Well, their initial introduction isn’t a pleasant one. Jack isn’t proud of his jerk friends or his jerk self, but deep down inside he likes the idea of being a better person. So when his friends come up with a cruel game for harassing overweight girls at school, Jack comes up with a plan. It’s mean and makes him the bad guy, but it will end his friends’ game once and for all.
I completely understand why Jack admires Libby. It’s frustrating when you read a book where characters respect/love/hate someone and you just can’t see what they see. Well, Libby does stand out and I’m not talking about her size. She’s comfortable with who she is as a person and has learned to accept and cope with the fact that others will mostly focus on the external. She’s outspoken and intelligent and brave and basically all the virtues Jack wishes he had the guts to embody. Oh, and in a weird way her size is an asset for Jack. Libby may be one of the few people he can pick from a crowd. Even if he can’t recognize her face, he can recognize her size.
This novel is also funny, a rare and precious asset in a good book as I can tell you from both my experience as a writer and an avid reader that drama is so much easier to write than humor. As only one example from this book, I cracked up out loud at a line when Jack’s talking to his girlfriend. Internally, he always reminds himself that his on and off again, popular, and equally jerk girlfriend used to be sweet. And she still has nice moments. So when they’re talking on the phone one night and she’s being, well, not so sweet, Jack thinks to himself that he wishes he could just ask her, “Can you put nice Caroline on the phone now?”
HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE is an empowering story about inner strength and inner beauty. I doubt I’ll forget Libby or humbling resilience anytime soon.