Sunday, 16 October 2016

'Holding Up The Universe' by Jennifer Niven

Title: Holding Up The Universe
Author(s): Jennifer Niven
Release Date: 6th October 2016
Publisher: Penguin
Genre: YA, Contemporary
Source: Publisher (ARC)

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 see who she really is. Since her mum'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. 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 art of fitting in. What no one knows is that Jack has a secret: he can't recognize faces. Even his own brothers are strangers to him. He's the guy who can re-engineer and rebuild anything, but he can't understand what's going on with the inner workings of his own 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 counseling, Libby and Jack are both angry, 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.


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This was probably the book I was most scared of picking up this entire year. As with every book that seems to deal with sensitive issues lately, everyone was up in arms once the blurb was released and heavily judging it as if by its cover.

I am getting this out of the way right at the top of my review so you know where I stand in this matter, and can therefore decide if you want to read any further: it is not anyone's place (even people that have gone through similar issues) to judge others based on the way they decide to deal with their own mental health problems and immediately call it as 'unrealistic' or 'offensive'. Just because what these characters are expressed as doing is not what you have experienced, denying it is erasing the experience of other people that might be out there waiting for a character they can relate to.

We are all different, and therefore should not assume we are experts at anything, even at something that has been part of us our entire lives.

Now that I got that off my chest, can we start talking about how fantastic this book is?

Libby has had a rough few years. After her mother passed away when she was eleven, dealing with the passing of the most important person in her life was not easy. The only way she found to ease her pain was to eat.

And eat.

Her grief took her to a place where she could barely move, where food was her only comfort, where even her loving father could not reach her. Her weight escalated, and one fateful day paramedics had to open an entire side of her house to be able to remove all 653 pounds that kept her locked away in pain to be able to save her.

A few years later, with the help of therapy and healthy eating habits, Libby has lost over 300 pounds and is ready to join the 'real world' again. This is when 'Holding Up The Universe' begins.

I was immediately surprised with the character that jumped off the page. Libby was definitely not what I expected. If it weren't for the mentions of her weight, and how some of the plot revolves around it, I would have completely forgotten she was overweight with how confident she is in her own skin and how she does not let that be everything that defines her. I found this incredibly inspiring, and I was looking up to Libby mere chapters into this book.

This is not only Libby's story, however. The book is evenly split between two points of view; hers and Jack's. Jack is a boy that goes to the school Libby joins, and he suffers from prosopagnosia, which means he cannot recognize faces. Anyone's. Not even his family's.

And not even they know about it.

While Libby was definitely my favorite character to follow, Jack was mesmerizing based on the fact that he is bringing with him something that I have never before seen represented in YA fiction, and how incredibly important this is. I could not fathom how ridiculously hard it must be to always be on guard and having to face everyone as if for the first time. I have an incredibly hard time with memorizing names (I often forget the names of people I have known for years, and don't even get me started on how hard this makes reading books to me), so I could find some sort of relatability with him, but at the same time I was constantly taken aback by how strong he is in the face of this and everything else he has thrown at him.

With two characters that have such prominent 'identifiers' (stealing a word from the book here), it would be easy to get lost in the characterization and make them all about being overweight of face-blind. Instead, we have a Libby that is fiercely protective of her loved ones. Confident. Funny. That dreams of being a dancer. We have a Jack that does not let his illness take away the meaning of his most important connections. Crafty. Friendly. Popular, but hiding two sides of his true self. We have people that are dealing with problems that affect everyone throughout their lives; they just so happen to have either a few extra pounds or a disability as they are dealing with them.

I could continue and write an entire essay about how significant the title of this book is, because it encapsules this story so perfectly as if it were made to measure. Is this a book about struggle, defeating the odds and people that are held down from all sides and have to push their way up through layers and layers of adversity? Yes. Is it still relatable to anyone and everyone out there, regardless of how much they personally have in common with its characters? You go and ask my feelings how they are doing after finishing this book. I left them on the last page, you can't miss them!

Don't let anyone's opinions of this book speak for it; pick it up, free of preconceptions, and see how easily Libby grabs you by the collar and makes you twirl along with her from page to page. She might have a lot weighing her down, but you will quickly realize that her weight is not one of them.

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