Friday, March 17, 2017

Book Review: 'Holding Up the Universe' by Jennifer Niven

I'll admit, this book had me fooled. I thought it wouldn't become a typical Jennifer Niven YA story that focuses more on angst than characters, their development and storylines. But then it did.

This is exactly Niven's problem: she creates intriguing YA novels that will appeal to readers who love a good story about loveable weirdos and their inevitably cheesy romance, and then takes it too far. The only other novel of hers I've read is All the Bright Places, which I would say I liked, but it failed to be unique in that it focused more on the fact that young people have problems and their lives suck but they can still find love. Jennifer Niven uses her characters and their storylines solely to create an angsty romance, rather than focus on the characters themselves.

Holding Up the Universe starts well. It follows Libby Strout, once dubbed America's Fattest Teen after she had become so overweight that she had to be rescued from her house, and Jack Masselin, a good-looking, popular guy who secretly suffers from prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize people's faces, even those closest to him, and how these two classmates become unlikely friends. A lot of people were immediately offended by the dust jacket's blurb calling Libby America's Fattest Teen and condemned the book and the author without even reading it, but I did not find Libby's story as a fat girl offensive. I think Niven actually dealt with it tastefully as well as shine a light on how mean kids can be just because people are different. Jack's secret struggle with face-blindness also started off strong and interesting. His relationship with his youngest brother was also adorable and had me swooning in the beginning.

But, unfortunately, Holding Up the Universe loses a lot of its appeal after about 200 pages, when it becomes obvious that, as already said, the author is just using her characters and their situations to create angst. It's as if Niven sat down and said, "How can I make this as angsty and sappy as possible? I'll make Libby fat and struggling with the fact that she's fat and how people treat fat girls, and then I'll have this good-looking, popular guy be secretly face-blind, but then I'll start to get uncreative with both situations because ultimately I'm just writing these characters this way so that it sets up the platform for an angsty and often problematic teen romance."

As a result, I didn't feel like I knew Libby and Jack very well, or any of the characters for that matter. I know their situations and how the world is unfair for both of them sometimes, but I don't understand their motivations, their thoughts or, most of the time, their actions. Holding Up the Universe's characters are ultimately very underdeveloped, but you only really find that out if you've already invested yourself in the first 200 pages of the book. You start reading it and you're compelled, because so few narratives shed light on what it's like to be a fat girl and be told that you're worthless because you're fat. Then you're intrigued by this popular guy's face-blind condition, because it's somewhat unique. But Niven only uses these character details as vehicles for creating her angsty teen romance, rather than develop her characters into real people other than horny teenagers who have to find love. It's books like these that give the YA genre a bad name because it has young people with problems that put the weight of the world on their shoulders, but oh look they find a friend that OH LOOK! turns into love. Major eye roll. Despite how negative this review sounds, Holding Up the Universe did have some good qualities. It was nice to see a YA book tackle fat girls in a way that is both tasteful but doesn't hold back. It would have just been nice if the motivation behind writing the character this way was more than just for the purpose of creating angst. 3/5 stars.

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