Holding Up the Universe
by Jennifer Niven
I read a review of the Teenage/Young Adult novel Holding Up the Universe on another blog, BongBongBooks. I was intrigued and decided to read it myself. It is the story of Jack Masselin, a teenager who has prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces–even those of family members. The other main character, Libby Strout, is a girl who gains so much weight in the process of grieving after her mother’s death that she has to be removed from her home by a crane. Lest these two young people seem like examples of extreme difficulties beyond the realm of possibility, readers should know that prosopagnosia is an actual disorder and that there is a reality TV show entitled My 600 Pound Life. The author did her homework and this novel has authenticity as we see how these two and their families struggle with the many issues that result from their conditions.
A major theme of this book comes from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: “Atticus, he was real nice…” “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.” There are two ways of not seeing people that this book explores: prosopagnosia (face blindness) and being unwilling to look past a person’s obvious exterior features such as weight, skin color, or disabilities to see who the person really is, what they are like on the inside.
I really liked this book for the plot development and the characters. I empathized with both characters as they tried to deal not only with their personal problems but also with relationship issues in their own families, with each other, and with peers. As you might expect, bullying and discrimination are major issues for the overweight Libby. It is not an uncommon theme in YA literature as, unfortunately, bullying others for individual physical differences occurs often in our society. I had to really step outside my framework to think what it must be like to walk into a room and not be able to recognize anyone. NOT ANYONE! Not my family, not my friends, not the people I saw two minutes ago. The author does a good job of helping the reader understand what face blindness must be like as it is lived out.
There is a lot of what I consider to be inappropriate language on the milder end of the continuum in this book. It was frequent enough that I did a little research on what kind of language is generally acceptable in Teenage/YA literature. I found many blog posts dealing with this question, ranging from none to anything goes and everything in between. I understand that many teenagers today use different word choices than when I was a teenager. I also know that in current films that kind of language and worse is commonplace. I include this paragraph as a warning to those who might be offended by some of the words used casually by the characters in Holding Up the Universe. The language did not enhance the story for me, nor did it ruin it. I do recommend this book with this one qualification.
I would like to extend my thanks to netgalley.com and to Penguin Books for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.