Review of “Holding Up the Universe” by Jennifer Niven

In this novel for young adults, the character Jack Masselin has prosopagnosia, which is the inability to recognize faces of familiar people; sometimes, as in Jack’s case, because of an injury to the brain. As the Prosopagnosia Research Centers website explains, “Not surprisingly, prosopagnosia can create serious social problems. Prosopagnosics often have difficulty recognizing family members, close friends, and even themselves. They often use alternative routes to recognition, but these routes are not as effective as recognition via the face.”

Libby Strout, a high school junior with Jack, also faces significant social challenges. She ballooned in weight to over 650 pounds following the unexpected death of her mother when Libby was 10. Thereafter Libby had been home-schooled, but now, having lost 300 pounds, she is trying to see if she can go back out in public and endure the inevitably harsh treatment of her schoolmates. After the years she spent eating and hiding and being terrified – of death, bullies, the way the world “gives you people to love and then takes them away,” she is determined (after three years of hard work and therapy) not to be afraid anymore.

The chapters alternate between Jack and Libby, who find that they understand each other in a way no one else does. While they both fear their classmates for different reasons, they know they can talk to each other without judgment. Soon, as Libby says to Jack, “Jack Masselin likes the fat girl, but you haven’t fully accepted it yet.”

Jack does like Libby. He finds it so freeing to be with a person who isn’t always hiding who he or she is. He also figures out that even those who can recognize faces don’t really see who he is, but Libby does; she well knows that appearances don’t reveal who the person is inside. Jack couldn’t be himself with his previous girlfriend, Caroline. She only wanted him to play a role:

“Caroline’s Achilles’ heel is rom-coms and vampire romances. She wants to live in a world where the hot guy grabs the girl and just plants one on her because he’s so overcome with desire and love that he’s rendered brainless.”

As Jack gets used to being himself with Libby, he learns to look at the positive side of his condition.

Meanwhile, Libby does have a hard time at school, just as she anticipated. She gets bombarded with hateful remarks and notes stuffed into her locker telling her she is not wanted. She asks one of her friends, “Why are people so concerned with how big I am?” Her friend doesn’t answer, but Libby knows why: “…there is not answer. Except that only small people – the inside-small kind – don’t like you to be big.”

But Libby gains confidence as well, figuring out how to do what she wants to do even if the skinny girls don’t approve. She writes a manifesto and hands it out, saying in it:

“Life is too short to judge others. It is not our job to tell someone what they feel or who they are. Why not spend some time on yourself instead?”

She ends it by arguing:

“…remember this: YOU ARE WANTED. Big, small, tall, short, pretty, plain, friendly, shy. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, not even yourself. Especially not yourself.”

In the Acknowledgments, the author talks about her own struggles with weight, and the fact that she has family members who are face-blind. She refers readers to the Prosopagnosia Research Centers and Dr. Brad Duchaine, a researcher who makes a brief appearance in the book.

Evaluation: Niven’s previous book, All the Bright Places, was one of the best books I had read all year. It too was a book that dealt with difficult issues and emotional challenges, in a story full of pain as well as beauty. This book is actually “happier” than the former book. But it’s just as riveting, and Libby is an admirable and brave heroine.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2016

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