Review: Holding Up The Universe by Jennifer Niven

Holding Up The Universe von Jennifer NivenHolding Up The Universe

by Jennifer Niven
Penguin Books UK
06 Oct 2016

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher via This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

A boy who can’t recognize faces and a girl who used to be  dubbed „America’s Fattest Teen“ fall in love with each other in Jennifer Niven’s new YA freak-meets-freak novel.

After the sudden death of her mother, Libby became afraid of… anything, really. Comforting herself with food, she eventually became too big to get out of bed. Until that horrible, embarassing day when she had to be literally cut out of her own house and lifted out by a crane to get her to the hospital. Now, after a lot of therapy and shedding weight, it’s Libby’s first day back in high school. Still overweight and fighting anxiety, but determined to make it through the day, Libby meets Jack.

Jack is popular, funny and good-looking. And he has a secret – he can’t recognize or remember faces. Hiding his condition (which, as he will find out, is called „prosopagnosia“) is hard work, and he lives in constant fear of being discovered. Of all people, it is Libby who is the first to learn about his handicap, and the two of them start bonding.

After her bestseller „All The Bright Places“, Jennifer Niven once again has two „freaks“ find and support each other during a particularly difficult time in their teenage years. Once again, mental illness is involved – in this case it’s anxiety, depression and an eating disorder. But „Holding Up The Universe“ isn’t quite as somber as „All The Bright Places“ and doesn’t end with a fatal punch to the gut.

Libby and Jack have serious issues, and none of them simply dissolve till the end of the book. Jennifer Niven knows her stuff, and she makes it clear that falling in love or finding support will help, but it can’t erase anxiety disorders or heal a neurological condition. In so far, Niven stays true to her realistic handling of (mental) health problems. She takes care to explain the complex set of difficulties both teens have to deal with and how they affect their daily lives and their relationships. And while the focus of the book leans towards Libby, Jack’s prosopagnosia is probably the more „intriguing“ handicap. It’s a condition most of us have most likely never heard of, and Niven both explains and illustrates it with great care and empathy.

While Libby and Jack are great characters to relate to for any teen who, for some reason, is either an outsider at their school or afraid to lose their status because of well-hidden flaws, there are elements to this novel which make it feel a bit unrealistic. First of all, Jack. He’s hidden his prosopagnosia from everyone, including his own family. He can’t even recognize his own mother when she walks into his room (he has to rely on „markers“ such as hair style, clothing, voice etc.), and no one has noticed this?! Even with Jack’s very creative excuses and „masking“ techniques, it’s hard to believe. Moreover, why has Jack never mentioned his difficulties to his parents when he became aware of them?

Also, Libby’s development from being an anxiety-wrecked recluse to the self-confident young woman she turns out to be appears a little too smooth. Yes, she has to fight and consult with her therapist. Yes, she struggles. But with the kind of severe issues she’s had, one would expect bigger setbacks, more back-and-forth instead of the quick and linear improvement we see. Then again, „Holding Up The Universe“ is supposed to set a positive example, to encourage teens with similar problems. Fair enough?

There is one big eye-rolling moment, though, clearly demanding suspension of disbelief. Jack’s prosopagnosia is, per diagnosis, a severe case and unfixable. He has never been able to remember anyone’s face. But all of a sudden he manages to remember Libby’s. Yeah. Violin theme playing in background. Love conquers all. You wish.

But Niven’s strength is, once again, creating lovable yet complex characters. Both Libby and Jack have questionable traits, but they are brave, charming, funny and emotional. They are role models with flaws, and we love them all the more for it.

In the end, Niven has served us with another empathetic YA love story centered around two teens with much more than the usual set of adolescence hickups. Her message(s): You don’t need to be perfect. Don’t be afraid. Stand up for yourself. Stand up for each other. And, last but not least – there’s someone out there who will love you just the way you are.

I don’t have a problem with that.

Ein Hinweis für deutschsprachige Leser: „Holding Up The Universe“ erscheint am 22.06.2017 unter dem (furchtbar nichtssagenden) Titel „Stell dir vor, dass ich dich liebe“ auf Deutsch

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