Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

Title: Holding Up the Universe

Author: Jennifer Niven

Rating: 5/5


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 know who she really is. Following her mom’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. In that moment, 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 impossible art of giving people what they want, of fitting in. What no one knows is that Jack has a newly acquired 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 in new and bad-ass ways, but he can’t understand what’s going on with the inner workings of his 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 and community service—Libby and Jack are both pissed, 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.

Jennifer Niven delivers another poignant, exhilarating love story about finding that person who sees you for who you are—and seeing them right back.


Let me start this review by saying, I did not like Jennifer Niven’s novel, All the Bright Places, which I know, is a very unpopular opinion.  I felt that suicide was taken way too lightly in that novel, and because of that, I was very wary of reading and reviewing Holding Up the Universe.  However, after reading this gorgeous novel, I am so happy that I did.  I NEVER say that a novel is flawless, but this novel is just that.  It is precisely the book I wish had been published when I was a teenager, and here is why.

As long as you live, there’s always something waiting; and even if it’s bad, and you know it’s bad, what can you do?  You can’t stop living. (Truman Capote, In Cold Blood)

Holding Up the Universe focuses on a young girl, Libby, who is obese and had to be cut out of her former house due to her size.  After she becomes healthier and loses some of her weight, she decides to go back to the high school that all of the kids she grew up with go to.  The story then introduces the character of Jack, a boy who has a disorder where he can’t recognize the face of anyone and has to rely on other identifiers to be able to recognize people.  Their stories intertwine beautifully through alternating chapters, and it becomes obvious that everything that happens to either of them affects them both in the long run.

After all, miracles happen every day.  Which means maybe those kids who were so hateful to me on the playground have grown up and realized the error of their ways.  Maybe they’ve actually turned out to be nice.  Or maybe they’re even meaner.  Every book I read and movie I watch seems to give out the same message: high school is the worst experience you can ever have.

Libby goes through extensive bullying throughout the novel, most of it by the hands of Jack’s friends, but Jack begins to find a connection with Libby and they fall in love with one another.  But the story is not just a love story, it is a story of discovery and flaws and how the high school experience can completely challenge and alter who you are.

It’s like being at a costume party every single day where you’re the only one without a costume, but you’re still expected to know who everyone is.  

Niven did an incredible job of understanding how Jack, with his mental disorder, might feel and see the world while also empathizing with Libby and what she has bene through, without pitying her.  Growing up, I was obese, and middle school – high school were the worst years of my life due to how I was seen.  I have never liked the way that obese women are portrayed in literature because they have either been extremely confident in order to prove that they have value, or they are seen as the sidekick and don’t really have an emphasis on who they are.  Niven was different, because she made me remember exactly how I felt throughout my youth by portraying Libby in a real light, and I felt confident in knowing Libby because she proved to me that “fat” characters don’t have to be one of two stereotypes – overly confident, or the sidekick.  Libby was realistic and even though she was self-conscious in the beginning of the book, she did change due to her experiences of going back out in the world and realizing the extent to how people viewed her.  She became unapologetic, but in a realistic way, and her character was NOT just defined by her weight.

If everyone who had something to say about me spent as much time on, I don’t know, practicing kindness or developing a personality or a soul, imagine how lovely the world would be.”

Niven forces the reader to view people, and our world, differently, and she did an amazing job of grasping the human condition and reflecting our actions and thoughts back to us in an unapologetic matter.  This book is a must-read, and it is by far the best book I have read in about a year.  It is not only important for young adults to read, but for readers of all ages to read because everyone can learn something from it.

Holding Up the Universe teaches us to look at each other for who we are and not for what we look like, and if only everyone picked it up and read it, it could change the world.


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3 thoughts on “Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

  1. Your analysis of Holding Up the Universe is great! Thought I can’t claim to know what having face-blindness is like, I too thought that Niven did a good job of helping the reader to understand and what Jack may have been going through. I liked Libby, also, because I felt like she was extremely multi-faceted. Great review!


    1. Thank you very much! And I agree. It seems like “fat girls” are usually just labeled as “fat girls” in young adult novels, and they don’t have personalities. But Libby was different, and she wasn’t just defined by her appearance. It was so refreshing!


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