*I received an e-ARC of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. In no way does this affect the content of my review. If you’d like to read my Review Policy, click here.*
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 know who she really is. Following her mom’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. In that moment, 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 impossible art of giving people what they want, of fitting in. What no one knows is that Jack has a newly acquired 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 in new and bad-ass ways, but he can’t understand what’s going on with the inner workings of his brain. So he tells himself to play it cool: Be charming. Be hilarious. Don’t get too close to anyone.
Until he meets Libby. When the two get tangled up in a cruel high school game—which lands them in group counselling and community service—Libby and Jack are both pissed, and then surprised. Because the more time they spend together, the less alone they feel. . . . Because sometimes when you meet someone, it changes the world, theirs and yours.
After the success of All The Bright Places, Jennifer Niven is one the hottest authors in the world of YA. I haven’t read her first offering yet, so when her new book appeared on the wonder that is NetGalley, I thought I’d request it to see what all the fuss was about.
If I’m honest, another reason I requested this book was because I was intrigued by the original blurbing, which attracted a lot of criticism from the Goodreads community a few months ago. Readers, bloggers and reviewers labelled the first blurb (it’s now been amended) everything from ‘horrendously offensive’ to ‘fat shaming’, as well as claiming that it ‘romanticised mental health’. I didn’t actually get to read the infamous blurb before it was taken down, but if there’s anything that gets my attention quickly then it’s a bit of scandal.
Is this book as offensive as people seemed to think it would be? Short answer: No. Holding Up The Universe is about as offensive as a good night’s sleep. I really don’t feel like this book shames anyone, in any way. Instead, it presents the obstacles that come with a health problem in an honest and hopeful way and I think that a lot of people will take a huge amount away from it.
The structure is what we’ve come to expect from a lot of contemporary young adult books, with a split person perspective allowing us to experience the story from both Jack and Libby’s points of view. Jack and Libby’s chapters actually had quite a similar tone and surprisingly, there were a couple of incidences where I wasn’t quite sure whose perspective I was reading until a small detail gave it away. Admittedly, it doesn’t help that proof-copy chapter headings don’t always appear on my Kindle app. Aside from that small niggle, I did like both of the characters and I thought that the scenes where the two of them were alone were particularly well written.
Jack, the male main character, thinks that he has Prosopagnosia, which stops him from being able to recognise and remember the faces of his friends and loved ones. A lot of research has clearly gone into representing such a complex neurological disorder and whilst I enjoyed Jack’s journey, I did feel like Niven was a bit prone to using the condition to push the plot forward. Why didn’t Jack tell his parents for so long when it would have made so many things much easier for him? It sometimes felt like a convenient device to move the characters to where they needed to be.
As expected, the plot is all about character development and growth, as opposed to shocks or action, so although it’s a nice read, it’s not always a page turner. Libby is the book’s standout creation and you can tell that Niven, who has been quite open about her struggles with weight, relates to her character deeply. There are many young adult books that tackle body image, but only a few that are so honest in their approach to weight and ultimately, health in general. Libby knows she doesn’t have to become a size eight to be happy in her own skin and she’s fierce and dignified. A fantastic role model for young people who are struggling with body image and confidence; her character was the best thing about the book.
Jack and Libby both have present and caring parents who are involved in the story from beginning to end, which was great to see. Special shout-out for Libby’s relationship with her Dad, which was very touchingly portrayed. The supporting cast of characters is quite large and as a result, some of them suffer from a case of two dimensional-itis. Jack’s on-off girlfriend Caroline, for example, ends up coming across as a watered down version of Mean Girl’s Regina George. Although her vulnerability is alluded to, the quirks or issues that would have made her a redeemable character were never explored in any depth. Unfortunately, this is the case for most of the ‘bad guys’ or flawed characters in the book, who Niven seemed to pick out of ‘The Writers Guide to Bullies, Mean Kids And Adults Who Make Bad Decisions’ like she was taking advantage of the local Tesco’s buy one, get one free deal.
The writing is warm and welcoming, which makes for a pleasant reading experience. Libby is the most real character, written with lots of stubborn wit, bold strength and soft vulnerability. What let the writing down for me was that the dialogue sometimes felt really off. At one point, Jack refers to someone as ‘a really cool chick’. Maybe it’s because I’m British and this book is set in America, but I didn’t think the slang felt real. If you’re going to write contemporary YA, you have a responsibility to ensure your readers can identify with your characters in the present day. Niven just missed the mark with this novel.
The message unnderpinning this book is a lovely one and I think that it has the potential to teach readers some essential life lessons. Be kind to others, accept people for who they are and don’t stand by and let bad things happen. This is a sweet book, but for me it lacked any real ‘oomph’. I liked it, but in the way that someone likes an unspectacular meal. This book isn’t a Michelin starred dinner cooked by Michel Roux Jr and eaten off of Chris Hemsworth’s abs, but it nor is it a salad with a caterpillar in it. It’s more like a pre-packaged sandwich – perfectly satisfying if you’re hungry, but leaves you wondering if you could have spent your £3.50 on something more exciting.
- Author: Jennifer Niven
- Rating: 3/5
- Publication Date: 4th October 2016
- Pages: 400
- Publisher: Penguin
- In short: Nice, but bland