Review | Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

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Libby Strout is fat – she was once called “America’s Fattest Teen” after an unfortunate incident in her past. Libby’s just trying to live her life after her mother passed away, but kids in high school are cruel, and nobody wants to look past Libby’s weight and really get to know her for who she is. And then there’s Jack Masselin – he’s popular, he’s attractive, but he has the reputation of the school douche because people think he’s too egotistical and arrogant to remember who they are. In fact, Jack has prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness. He can’t recognize and recall people’s faces – not his family’s, not his friends’, not anybody’s. When Libby and Jack’s paths collide, they form an unlikely bond.

As a fat person, media can be alienating. When I turn on the TV or go to the movies, everyone on screen looks a certain way, the way that my parents want me to look, the way that society wants me to look, and I’m constantly reminded that no matter what I do, what successes I have in life, my fatness will remain the focal point for many people. The stark lack of representation fat people have in the media- past crass stereotypes and being the butt of cheap jokes- is a slap in the face. And I’ve learned to turn the cheek, for the most part, but when a book like Holding Up the Universe comes along, promising representation, promising a narrative that I can see myself in, I foolishly lean forward.

Which is exactly what’s wrong with this book. Libby Strout is written to be some sort of strong force in the world that constantly puts her down; as a result, she is a caricature. A battle warrior facing off against the cruel world, with no flaws of her own, with a larger-than-life personality, giving off the message that unless you’re fighting and winning some sort of war every second of your life, are you really doing fatness right? Now, I understand that not all people’s experiences mirror mine, and that’s okay. But when the main character in a book is a fighter archetype, battling against society’s perspectives on fatness, that character has to live up to it.

But Libby is nothing but fat, and that defeats the purpose, no? Niven was trying to give  off the message that fat people are more than just fat (no shit), but she fails astoundingly because Libby’s life revolves around her fatness. Her love life revolves around finding someone who will look past her fatness, someone who’ll have sex with her regardless of her being fat – another thing which blows my mind, because the book starts off with her wanting to lose weight by having sex! Her relationship with her father revolves around how it’s not his fault that she’s fat. Her past is described by how she used to be fatter than she is now, and her future is also about how people will eventually look past her fatness, hopefully, maybe. Fat people are more than their fatness, and for a book about a fat character to contradict the very message it’s trying to pass along is laughably offensive.

Because what are Libby’s goals? I didn’t see any! She was a reader, but that doesn’t really go past anything except her relating her fatness to the character in her favorite book. Is Libby good in school? What are her career goals? What are her hobbies? She likes to dance, alright, but even that one aspect of her not directly related to her fatness is still saturated by it. We are people with lives – every single moment of our lives does not involve our weight.

Something similar happens with Jack’s character, though I can’t speak extensively about it since I don’t have a disability. It seems to give off the stench of “Jack is broken and must be fixed to have a good life.” These narratives written by authors who do not share their characters’ disabilities make me very uncomfortable; I am a firm believer that you can write whatever you’d like to, but there are some narratives that are better left alone if you can’t navigate them in a sensitive way. That coupled with the fact that Jack’s afro was described as a “lion’s mane,” and his hair was the only thing that seemed to indicate that he was black screamed tokenism to me. Where Libby’s outward appearance extended to everything she ever did, Jack’s race was strictly superficial, and as any person of color living as a minority in the US knows, it is never that simple.

So there it is – this book had very many thematic issues that ran deeper than technicalities like characterization and writing style, both of which were actually pretty good. If Niven was writing in her lane, as I say it, I’m sure I’d adore her work – she does have the ability to pull you in and keep you reading, but there was so much thematically wrong with this book that I can’t seem to give credit where it may be due. If you’re looking for good fat rep, just skip this, and maybe read a book by a fat author – like Dumplin’.

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Comments

  1. I actually had to DNF this book. It didn’t bother me until about the halfway point when Jack says, “She was graceful, for a fat girl.” The fact that that had to be qualified really rubbed me the wrong way and undid any body positive message she was previously touting (or trying to because, now that you point this out, I have to agree with you). After I read that line, all the little plot holes suddenly became much more glaring (the way the initial interaction between Jack and Libby went down, the fact that Libby’s dad didn’t care if she skipped school and went somewhere with a friend he’d never met, the fact that Jack didn’t tell his own family about his condition). I did skim the the rest of the book in the hopes it would get better, but instead saw Jack almost kidnap a child because he mistook him for his brother, Jack breaking up we Libby because she’d “have to say her current weight” so he’d recognize her (never mind whether that was something she wanted or not), and Libby forgiving him because Jack freaks out and reveals his disability at a party. This was very much my last time reading a Jennifer Niven book, as she seems to have a history of taking important issues and trivializing them in favor of a romance.

  2. Quite a powerful review! I completely understand how you would be frustrated with these characters. It sounds like they are pretty flat; did you find any character development at all? Or with other characters? Shame.
    Have you read All the Bright Places? If so, I’m wondering how that book resonated (or didn’t!) with you. There is so much to be found in all these pages- problematic or not.

  3. Wow, I never thought of it like that…I’m going to go read Dumplin’ now. I identified with Libby bc I was always the “fat” girl in school, but you make valid points. I wasn’t ALWAYS thinking about my body, my appearance, etc. I was insecure, so I understand her thought process when it came to boys.
    It felt like such a contradiction (in my opinion) to have Libby be willing to dance in front of everyone if she felt so embarrassed: when I was heavy, I never would dance in front of anyone bc I was WAY too self-conscious to be the center of attention. Or to draw attention to my body and its movement. But we all have different insecurities and that was mine. I wouldn’t even eat in the cafeteria bc I always figured they would make fun of the “fat” girl eating. (I still can’t even stand the word fat).
    But I get what you’re saying, and I get what you’re saying about Jack too. Excellent review. (And I still can’t believe how fab your blog is looking).
    Now I’m going to have to read Dumplin! 😂😉

    • I think it’s just a matter of how an overweight person relates to the narrator, you know? There are some people who will identify, and some people who won’t, and that’s alright. I just think it’s a very toxic narrative to give off that every aspect of our lives is saturated with constant thoughts about our weight, as if it’s an integral part of our being that needs to be on our minds constantly.

      And same, really. I’m self-conscious too – I still don’t dance in front of close family or show too much skin, and then to see a character who is so nonchalant about something that many people are self-conscious about again gives off the idea that what we’re feeling is wrong, haha. Dumplin’ is good – she’s fat and fatness does play a role in her life, but she has other things going on, and I really loved how Julie Murphy dealt with it. I hope you love it. <3

    • TBH I think her intentions are in the right place, haha, if that counts for anything, but the end product really falls flat. I’m still interested in reading AtBP since I already own a copy, but something tells me I won’t like it. x

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