Whenever I hear about a new book that features a protagonist who is above the average weight of your usual YA protagonist, I get both excited and apprehensive.
On the one hand, I would’ve loved fifteen-year-old me to have been able to read stories about characters like her, characters which were sadly missing from books when I was a teenager.
However, on the other hand, I get nervous, because so often these characters don’t feel real. I’ve lost count of the number of stories I’ve read about teenagers who didn’t fit in, where they suddenly become popular because of a sequence of ridiculous events. Of course, that does sometimes happen, but, let’s be honest here, most of the time it doesn’t. Most of the time if you’re that little bit different to everyone else, you’re always going to be viewed as that little bit different to everyone else, especially in high school. I wish it wasn’t like that, but, sadly, it is.
Also, weight is a touchy subject; it’s really hard being overweight at any time in your life, but in high school it’s doubly hard, and so a book touching on that has got to do so carefully and sensitively.
Despite all this though, when I heard that Jennifer Niven, author of the highly-acclaimed novel, All The Bright Places, had written a story with a leading protagonist who was above average size, I had high hopes, because in spite of being pretty much the last person left on Earth who hasn’t read ATBP, I’d heard such great things about it that I really thought she would be able to do a character like that justice.
Sadly, I shouldn’t have got my hopes up.
Holding Up the Universe is a YA romance, following the characters of Libby Strout and Jack Masselin as they try to negotiate the trials of high school; something that is made harder by the secrets they are hiding. Libby is newly joining the school, after spending years out as a result of putting on a significant amount of weight, and becoming publicly labelled “America’s Fattest Teen”, a title she is desperate to keep quiet in the hopes it’ll be forgotten. In contrast, Jack’s secret is one no-one on earth knows about. He suffers from Prosopagnosia, or face-blindness, meaning he is unable to retain the memory of people’s faces, including his family and friends.
As the new school year starts, the two must fight to keep their secrets hidden, but when their world’s collide, the secrets they are so desperate to hide, might just bring them both together.
I think the best way I can sum up my feelings for this book is to say that, in my opinion, this book is the literacy world’s equivalent of Shallow Hal, the 2001 romantic comedy starring Jack Black and Gwyneth Paltrow. In that film, Black’s character, the eponymous Hal, falls in love with Paltrow, a large woman, after he is hypnotised into only seeing her as thin. If you haven’t seen it, don’t. It’s terrible. Now, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say this book is quite that bad, it definitely falls into the same problematic areas.
In Holding Up the Universe, Jack begins to gravitate towards Libby more because he can pick her out from the crowd, rather than because she’s someone he wants to hang out with. As a result, he sort of becomes obsessed with her, something we, as the reader, are clearly meant to consider romantic. To make matters worse, all of this happens after he has physically assaulted her in the middle of the cafeteria, and, then, to top it all off, she begins to develop feelings for him, in spite of his assault, and the fact that his friends are the ones who are repeatedly physically and vocally abusing her.
As the book progresses, Niven desperately tries to use Jack’s Prosopagnosia to excuse him for all of this, but it just doesn’t wash. In fact, when it became clear that the story was heading in a romantic direction, I audibly sighed, and very nearly chucked the book out the window there and then, because here we have another story about an overweight girl and the popular guy falling in love, because the popular guy is figuratively, and in this case, literally, blind to her appearance. Here, you very much get the feeling that had Jack not suffered from face-blindness, he would’ve been as much of an jerk to her as his friends are, and it just feels really…there’s no other way to put it…icky. Plus, she is worth ten of him and yet she falls for him in spite of everything he does, and we’re just meant to accept that and move on?
As far as the actual plot goes, there’s not much going on aside from their relationship, and perhaps the most interesting part, in which Jack begins to research his face-blindness, is cut short very quickly, before it even really gets going. There’s a lot of talk leading up to that point, but it just doesn’t seem to go anywhere, and it’s as if Niven contemplated writing about that more, but then decided against it. As a result, what’s left is a rather disappointing dead end subplot.
I will say, despite everything, there are a few moments in this book that are quite motivating and uplifting. She touches on the topics of self-image and self-worth, about learning to be who you are, and not letting anyone stand in your way, and it was these moments that really show that Niven clearly means well, that she’s clearly coming from the right place, but I just don’t think this particular story really lends itself to enforcing those themes and ideas.
As I mentioned, the Prosopagnosia is a really interesting topic to touch on, and I can see how, if done right, combining that with the issues of self-image, which many teenagers grow up worrying about, could result in a really moving, clever book, but this story just didn’t achieve that.
Overall, it just wasn’t strong enough, and essentially resulted in an incredibly disappointing, and ultimately problematic, book.
Holding Up the Universe is published October 6th
I was sent a copy of this via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Featured image by Adrian Errico