Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

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Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

Buy Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: Teens
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Nigethan Sathiyalingam
Reviewed by Nigethan Sathiyalingam
Summary: An uplifting and life-affirming story, that sends out some brilliant messages about body positivity, tolerance and self-identity. Recommended!
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: October 2016
Publisher: Penguin
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780141357058

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High school can be far from the easiest place to navigate through for a lot of teenagers, but some have a harder job than others. After the sudden death of her mother, Libby started eating and she didn't stop until she almost killed herself. Years of doctors, counsellors and psychologists, combined with determination, sweat and tears, and she is finally ready to return to school after almost five years out. Libby is determined to make up for lost time, and refuses to be defined by her weight – she wants to be a girl who can do anything, a girl whose confidence and self-esteem is immune to anything that a few idiot high schoolers might throw her way. On the surface, Jack Masselin seems like the archetypal idiot high school guy: charming but thoughtless, superficial, and far too concerned with fitting in to do what he really knows is the right thing; but beneath all the charm and swagger, Jack is a nervous ticking time bomb. Every day is a struggle to get through, and he is constantly just one mistake away from embarrassing or hurting himself and the people around him. Because Jack has prosopagnosia, a cognitive disorder that means he can't recognise faces, whether it be his own, his family's or any of the hundreds of school kids that he is constantly surrounded by.

After getting tangled up in a cruel high school game Libby and Jack are forced to spend time together in detention, where they're surprised to discover that they have more in common than they might have thought. As a connection forms between the pair, and they start peeling back the protective layers they've each spent years putting up, they realise just how exhilarating it can be to find a person who sees you for who you truly are, a person who gives you the confidence to be yourself, and to finally start living your life the way you really want to.

Prosopagnosia was something that I had only really learnt about on a superficial theoretical level in medical school lectures, so I was very much intrigued to get an insight into the actual perspective and day-to-day functioning of affected individuals. Seeing the world through Jack's eyes was a novel and fascinating experience. The ability to recognise people, to see a face and instantly, instinctively connect it with an individual is something so fundamental, that to have it taken away is profoundly disorientating. Yet, having lived with the condition for as long as he can remember, Jack has learnt to adapt and utilise other facets of identity for recognition and sees people in his own, unique fashion, picking up on cues and identifiers such as hair style, clothing, voice and body shape.

Although the prospect of a face blind narrator was the main reason I picked up Holding Up the Universe in the first place, it turned out to be far from the only thing I enjoyed about the book. In fact, Libby's side of the story carries even more weight than Jack's, and she's the real star character of the book. YA literature is renowned for tackling hard-hitting topics and breaking through taboos – just off the top of my head, I could easily recommend a handful of truly excellent and highly popular YA books with main characters that are LGBT, characters suffering from mental health problems, characters that have been raped, characters with cancer, even characters that have died. Yet, there is a disparity in the frequency and quality of books that tackle the topic of weight. It's a symptom of a more general, societal issue wherein we still aren't very good at approaching the topic of weight or it's many complexities - diet, exercise, culture, genetics, media, eating disorders, depression and many more factors can and do play a role. Holding Up the Universe tackles the topic better than any other book I've read so far, appreciating its complexities while sending out some powerful messages about body positivity and self-esteem.

We meet Libby when she's already made huge strides in her recovery from the jumbled and complicated mess of grief, depression and eating disorders that left her near death. Her journey has made her much wiser and stronger than the average sixteen year-old, but she still has room to grow, to drive out those straggling doubts and insecurities, and somehow find true self-acceptance among the whirlwind of friends, romance, competition and bullies that high school brings. I enjoyed the portrayal of the school environment, which achieves a good balance of conveying the inevitable cliques of high school without falling too deep into stereotypes. For every person that can't get over Libby's weight, or who trod on her to bury their own insecurities, there are others who not only accept and appreciate her appearance, but are drawn to and inspired by her confidence and kindness. There's a whole variety of interesting characters, not only in terms of the teenagers, but also Jack and Libby's respective families. The multi-faceted secondary cast lends depth and substance to the book, fleshing out the core story of Jack and Libby's respective journeys towards self-acceptance and each other.

The conclusion was solid and emotionally sound, but I was left wanting more out of some of the characters and better resolutions to certain plot threads. Also, being a bit wordy in places, I found some aspects of the book a little heavy-handed.

Nonetheless, if you haven't already got the gist from my own wordy ravings above, there is a lot of excellent stuff to enjoy in this book. In a society that, worryingly, seems to be increasingly obsessed with appearance, Holding Up the Universe is a refreshingly uplifting and positive story that is very much worth reading. Strong recommendation from me!

My thanks to the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag. For further reading, One by Sarah Crossan is another book that explores powerful issues and conundrums of growing up with veritable grace and honesty, all told in exquisitely memorable free verse. Meanwhile, Wonder by R J Palacio is another hugely life-affirming story all about being yourself, regardless of the challenges life throws at you, recommended for readers of all ages. Finally, with its pitch perfect high school setting and breath-taking story of redemption and coming-of-age, Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver is a must for any fans of contemporary fiction.

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Buy Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven at Amazon.com.


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