Holding Up the Universe (Jennifer Niven)

Holding Up the Universe is a novel by Jennifer Niven.
Finished on: 22.4.2017

Libby is trying to have a fresh start in her life. After becoming so fat that she couldn’t leave her bed anymore, she got help, lost some of the weight and is ready to stop being home-schooled and start high school. For real. And maybe meet a cute boy. Jack is definitely a cute boy, popular and athletic. But he hides a secret from everybody: he suspects that he has prosopagnosia, a condition where he can’t recognize anybody’s face. He’s been coping well enough, mostly by carefully fitting in. When Libby and Jack meet it is pretty much under the worst possible circumstances. But their shared feeling of being different from everybody else is also an opportunity for them.

Holding Up the Universe is a very cute book that I very much enjoyed reading. In fact, I blazed through it and finished it within a day. It’s a lovely romance with two unusual characters that I both liked.

[Slight Spoilers]

I stumbled on the book quite by chance, saw that it had a fat protagonist and was sold on it. It was only after reading that I discoverd that it apparently stirred quite a controversy even prior to actually being published because people took offense at the blurb, pointing it out as both fat hating and ableist. To be honest, I don’t understand the criticism, not even after reading a few reviews that tackle it. And I’m saying this as a fat woman who is trying to educate herself about disability issues and definitely takes representation seriously.

Of course, I can speak with more authority on the issues of fat hate than disability, and I thought that this part was wonderfully handled. Even though there are a lot of moments that touch on fat hate and we also get to see Libby’s insecurities about her weight, mostly we see how she is a funny and actually pretty self-confident person. Yeah, she’s fat and that’s certainly part of who she is as a person, too, but it’s not her insecurities that define her, but her strengths. And actually, being fat becomes one of the things that draw Jack to her because in a sea of thin girls, he can easily recognize her shape and doesn’t need to worry about mistaking her for somebody else. I thought that was a pretty nice touch (and doesn’t actually fetishize fatness, which would be the other extreme).

I have no personal experience with prosopagnosia, nor do I know anybody with the condition. But Jack’s struggle to pass as “normal”, to not get labelled disabled, to not be a burden – these are all things I can see a disabled person struggling with in a society like ours where disabled automatically equals bad and worthless. But we don’t just get to see Jack’s self-loathing, we also get to see his pretty smart coping strategies that don’t fail him very often. I mean, it is quite a feat to hide a neurological condition like this one for almost your entire life. From everybody. Fortunately, though, we also see him grow past this wish to be “normal”, and getting diagnosed, getting helped and basically “coming out” as disabled. Personally I thought this was nicely handled.

Also, Jack is black and to get a disabled person of color as the lead in a romance novel? Yes, please!

But most of all, I just fell in love with Jack and Libby and them falling in love with each other. Yes, the book gets a little cheesy, but hell, that’s what I read it for. And in that regard, it absolutely delivers.

Summarizing: Lovely.


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