HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE by (fellow SUPERNATURAL fangirl Jennifer Niven) was almost equal parts enjoyable and frustrating for me. Despite writing over a million words of the same two characters falling in love, and then reading hundreds of thousands of stories about those same two characters being in love again and again, I’m actually really picky with my romance stories, and I’m only getting pickier by the day.
So there were things that I really liked about this book, and things that bothered me. Niven has a real talent for writing a large cast of characters, revealing their complexities little by little. I felt that in ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES Niven’s strength came through in her writing of the platonic relationships in her book, her MC’s relationships with their friends and families—and I think that holds true for HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE.
One of my favourite parts of the novel was Jack’s (MC) complicated and authentic relationship with his family, particularly with his little brother Dusty. Their close moments together, and the revelation of Jack’s struggles at home and Dusty’s problems at school effected me the way good writing should.
I liked how the story is about being ‘seen’. Being equal parts about how you see yourself, how others see you and how you see them. It was a candid yet comforting storyline of those who have been labelled and ostracised from their peers.
This certainly was a unique story in many ways, after the death of her mother and withdrawal from the world Libby is labelled as America's Fattest Teen and made into a spectacle. Now three years later, she has taken control of her health and is determined to enjoy the adolescent experience. Attending school. Meeting new friends. Learning to drive a car. She doesn’t allow for others to diminish the respect and love she has developed for herself, but that’s not always easy to achieve in high school. (Like Niven, she also loves the TV show SUPERNATURAL! Making this fellow Fangirl feel instantly in the loop.)
Meanwhile Jack feels as though he is living a façade. Though popular and attractive (with a kick ass fro) Jack lives with a cognitive disorder called prosopagnosia. A condition where sufferers use ‘identifiers’ to recognise family, friends and those around them, such as sounds, physical cues and body shape. ((REC: another great YA read that has a MC with prosopagnosia is Laura Ruby’s BONE GAP, truly beautiful, one of my favourite novels now after I read it last year)).
The narration alternates between both Libby and Jack, effectively getting readers into both kids’ heads. The discomfort and fear that Jack feels comes through clearly, as he constantly rehearses the “identifiers” of everyone he knows, feels immense isolation even within his own home, and struggles in his words ‘not to be an asshole as to protect his secret from coming out. Libby's particular anxieties as well are a major driver of her perspective: will she get stuck behind her desk? Will her peers ever look past her weight? Her desire and love of dance (twirling) also characterises her perspective.
Yet, both characters are clearly written in Niven’s voice, with no distinctive voices of their own—this is not a bad thing, just something worth noting.
I’ve done a little reading and apparently Niven drew upon some of her own personal experiences/relationships/family to write this novel. Taking I guess, I think this comes from both Libby’s and Jacks (in particular) relationships with their families- which again I felt was the strength of the novel. Niven artfully depicts the pain, secrets, fear, and healing that comes with living amongst complicated family relationships.
What did end up bothering my about HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE is mostly down to my own tastes as a reader/writer rather than any real objective opinions.
When I first started the novel I couldn’t shake the sensation that the plot of this was about two teens who are solely characterised by their weight and prosopagnosia, and how these elements are specifically a part of the book to create an angsty romance.
I didn’t understand the controversy that arouse from this title (before the book was even out mind) about Libby being called "America's Fattest Teen" or that a major plot point is a high school game called "Fat Girl Rodeo". These things are gross and offensive, but you know what is gross and offensive? American media’s tendency to make everything into a reality show ((SEE one Donald Dick-Bag Trump)) and yep, also high schoolers.
Jack’s and Libby’s relationship felt really shallow. Orchestrated, which is the nature of writing but shouldn’t really come across in the writing itself. It felt like the characters were a means to an end for the purposes of creating a relationship and isolating their differences so that they were SOLELY DEFINED by those differences for the sake again of a Romeo and Juliet relationship.
Again, this is a romance, I knew that coming in and was fine with that. But when you craft a narrative where the sole purpose of the overarching story is to bring two characters who are labeled by the world as "freaks" to fall in love with each other with not a whole lot of chemistry with each other then it reads a little reductively. I hate that feeling when I read romance. I feel this was probably multiplied because of the ‘issues’ concerning Niven’s characters throughout the work.
I applaud anyone who does the research and writes genuinely from the heart about experiences outside their own ((SEE: Niven’s previous book, ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES)) but reducing characters solely to a "condition" or "status" is a real problem in trying to write diversely, intersectionally and truthfully. I struggle with this a lot as an able bodied white writer, making sure to not shape a character's experiences solely by those ‘diverse’ terms. People (even those in stories) are more dimensional and complex than that. Yes, those experiences are essential to the person's life and identity, but they are not the sole definition points you should be using to shape that identity. Sure, exploring the challenges of attitudes that may be put to the person with that condition, and also exploring the fears, doubts, that person may have with that experience is essential and necessary but you have to be careful in exploring that.
Though I felt this a little less as the novel went on (with the DEFINITE exception of Jack suddenly being about to SEE Libby because he Loves her—I cringed a bit at that) it was still a point of contention for me in figuring out how I feel about this having finished.
This isn’t to say I disliked HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE by any means, It’s actually very important to be more critical of the things you like and enjoy. To explore them a little deeper, to look past the surface and really uncover what it is about the work that you enjoy, the things you don’t and the things you’re still unsure about.