I read and really enjoyed All the Bright Places last year, so I was really excited to realise Jennifer Niven had a new YA book coming out. I picked up a copy as soon as I could, and read it almost straight away. As much as I loved ATBP, I enjoyed this even more.
Structurally, Holding Up The Universe works similarly to ATBP, so if you read her previous book you are in familiar territory. We follow Libby Strout, returning to school after years at home, and Jack Masselin, who isn’t who he wants to be. They’re both fantastic characters, but Libby especially is a brilliant character to see in YA – she is such a brillaint and genuine role model for young readers to look up to. And I loved that while this book has plenty of messages about how we treat each other, it is never written as preachy. Reading fiction is always an experience of putting yourself in someone else’s skin, and Niven uses this to huge impact in her choice of narrators.
Comparatively, I also preferred the romance in this book – occasionally in ATBP, the dynamics of Finch forcing Violet into social situations felt off for me, but that was never the case between Libby and Jack. I also find it really interesting that while in ATBP I felt occasionally thrown off by neither character really holding more focus as a protagonist, here I felt that Libby came through that little bit stronger and actually it worked better for me.
I also really enjoyed how Niven gives an insight to the experience of someone with face blindness, or prosopagnosia. Jack’s life is structured in fundamentally different ways to other people’s, and his multitude of coping mechanisms was really well explored. In the same way, Libby’s experience just of existing in the world as a fat girl is so beautifully done – and for both of them, Niven underlines all of this with the emphasis and recognition that they are, in the end, also just people. I found it interesting that Libby’s story is initially framed by the fact that she is so hyper-visible – she is never unnoticed, always easy to pick out in a crowd – and how this factored into her relationship with Jack. We all want, in some way, to be seen, and I love how Niven identifies the key differences in the negatives and positives of being recognised.
Spoilers this para
I did have some reservations about the actual ending. After all the brilliant exploration of Jack’s face blindness, and the repeated mentions that he doesn’t recognise even the people he loves, I was disappointed that the resolution between him and Libby became that he remembered her face because he loved her. I would argue that he definitely loves his family as much as he comes to love Libby, especially his little brother. I was disappointed in the implication that romantic love is somehow more important or fulfilling than all the other kinds of love we feel for other people.
I absolutely recommend to this and ATBP to any fans of YA. Whether you look primarily for plot or character, Niven handles both incredibly well and creates a beautiful and honest portrait of growing up feeling singled out.