Review: Holding Up The Universe by Jennifer Niven

*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.*


Goodreads Synopsis

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.


Review

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Cover from Goodreads

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.


In Summary…

  • Author: Jennifer Niven
  • Rating: 3/5
  • Publication Date: 4th October 2016
  • Pages: 400
  • Publisher: Penguin
  • In short: Nice, but bland

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38 thoughts on “Review: Holding Up The Universe by Jennifer Niven

  1. Sounds like an average read that fell on the side of good rather than bad by chance more than anything? Lovely review though, you really explore the different aspects of the book, it was great to read!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think that’s probably an accurate description! I mean it was perfectly nice, but not groundbreaking or really gripping for me personally! I think it will resonate with some people though and a lot of people seem to really dig Niven’s writing. The jury is out! Thank you so much, I’m really glad you enjoyed it. 😁 x

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  2. I’m sorry to hear that you didn’t like this one as much as you anticipated. All the Bright Places is the best book I’ve read this year, and I’d highly, highly recommend it to anyone and everyone. It’s far from being dull; rather, it’s breathtakingly alive and portrays mental illness in a light that is real, gritty, yet positive, too. Besides, Finch is the sweetest character and the way he treats Violet is absolutely adorable!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great review, Sammie! I generally agree with your review, though my rating is higher (I’m giving it four stars). I LOVE the writing style and the messages conveyed by the story… just not super blown away by it, although to me it was a very easy, very entertaining read. There were also a couple of issues I had with the way Libby was presented as an exception to Jack’s face blindness – it didn’t sit well with me and felt a bit like “love heals illnesses”, which is just not true. What did you think of that?

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    • Thank you, Reg! I’m so sorry it’s taken me so long to reply to this comment – for some reason it ended up in my spam and I’ve just caught it. 😦 Silly WordPress! Agree – really easy read, decent writing style (I don’t think I liked it as much as you did, but that’s down to personal preference!) and a good message. I think you’re right, it was a bit of a spin on that classic ‘love conquers all, even mental health, disability and debilitating illness’ which I think is a bit dangerous because it suggests that you need to be in a relationship to deal with your/a condition in a healthy way. Totally agree!

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  4. Considering the fact that I really disliked All the Bright Places, I probably shouldn’t pick this one up either, since it isn’t that good. I anyway haven’t heard a lot of great things, and when I disliked her much-loved first book, there are high chances that I might be disappointed with this one too 😛
    Anyway, great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha! That’s definitely good logic! I think if you didn’t enjoy All The Bright Places (which I haven’t read and have quite mixed feelings about) then I wouldn’t bother with this one! Far too many books out there to waste time with ones you don’t think you’ll like. 🙂 Thank you so much!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah the controversy was what drew me to it in the first place! I’m such a nosey person so I really felt the need to see what all of the fuss was about haha! It’s not rant review material, but it’s just not very exciting. I’m glad it wasn’t as offensive as everyone thought either! Thank you, Lauren. 😀

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  5. Lovely review, Sammie! I have to admit, I requested the book before even seeing all of the drama about it on Goodreads. I really enjoyed All The Bright Places and was looking forward to reading this story, and if anything, all of the drama made me want to read it even more, just to prove them it wasn’t as offensive as it seemed to be by the blurb. The author didn’t write the blurb after all, and how can you deduce by a couple of unfortunate words how bad the book is? Well, that being said, I do understand why some people got mad. ANYWAY I am rambling haha.
    I think I ended up enjoying this book a bit more than you did, since I gave it one more star, but I understand, it was a pleasant, but not astonishing read after all. A good relaxing contemporary I guess 🙂

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  6. I have a copy of this one on the way. I suspect i may have mixed feelings about it after reading your review. I didn’t know about the original Goodreads blurb! Good to hear that the book isn’t offensive. Blurbs can be so misleading (I often have to have a giggle at the blurbs for films on Netflix; they’re notoriously awful).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha oh my god Netflix blurbs are the worst – some of the random films on there have terrible ones! I think it’s incredibly tough to write a good blurb and I guess sometimes, the publishing houses get it a bit wrong! It’s like when they basically give everything away in a couple of paragraphs. I wanted a blurb, not a synopsis! Argh!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Haha, totally! But they are really tricky. I always find them the hardest part when I write my reviews. You want to hook the reader without giving away too much, but you don’t want to be too cryptic either. I don’t envy the people who have to write them in the publishing houses!

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