Of Lovely Minds and Bodies: Jennifer Niven’s Holding Up the Universe

Let me explain a bit about Jennifer Niven before I begin this book review—for the sake of those unfamiliar with the author.

Jennifer is the daughter of Penelope Niven, who was also an accomplished writer. In the early stages of Jennifer’s career, she wrote nonfiction, which was her mother’s genre. When she published Velva Jean Learns to Drive, she was venturing into the world of fiction, and I became one of her biggest fans. Velva Jean was a heroine that I rooted for, that I loved, that I wanted to be like. Jennifer had me hooked.

In 2015, Jennifer decided to switch age groups—from adults to teens—and, as a result, became a New York Times bestselling author with her book, All the Bright Places. The novel sold in many different countries. Jennifer gained international acclaim. More importantly, she became more than “just an author” to so many young people—she became an advocate for those with mental illness.

Holding Up the Universe is Jennifer’s newest young adult novel, scheduled to release on October 4, 2016.

Here is the synopsis:

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.

As a contributor to Germ Magazine (for the sake of transparency: it is an online publication created by Jennifer), I had the privilege of receiving an ARC of Holding Up the Universe in exchange for a review.

REVIEW (SPOILERS MAY FOLLOW):

Holding Up the UniverseRomance, for any age group, is not my genre of choice—but I have to admire Jennifer’s ability to make love stories feel true to real life. The romance between Libby and Jack starts slow and with lots of initial loathing. From there, it’s not an easy transition to love and acceptance.

Loosely based on Jennifer’s own experiences, she doesn’t sugar coat the hard issues, and I think that is what makes her writing so strong. The characters in this story are struggling to find the confidence to move forward with their lives. Libby is bullied for her weight. Jack is terrified he will lose everyone he loves if he tells them about his cognitive disorder. Jack’s brother carries a purse despite his schoolmates’ opinions of him. The list goes on.

A cowardly act inspires the bravery hidden in both Libby and Jack. They start to change the people around them, including each other, as they learn how to accept themselves and pursue their dreams. And interwoven with these trials is an underlying truth—that Libby and Jack are wanted simply as they are.

At times it is a heartbreaking journey, but I’m glad I tagged along to see all of the triumphs for our main characters. It’s like Niven’s writing invites you in and makes you want to stay for dinner. There is cordiality in her paragraphs, friendship in her sentences. Then she shakes it up with a dash of humor. There is a deliberate connection, like she’s reaching for the reader’s hand. Her writing does not suffer due to her intentions. On the contrary, her kindness magnifies the power of the story.

There were only a few things that bothered me, overall, about the book.

There were many minor characters and I eventually started to mix some of them up because of the sheer number of them. Oftentimes it was because a group of minor characters played a minute role in a single part of the novel, with only a brief mention of them later. The ones that were more concrete, like Caroline and Mr. Levine, I didn’t have too much trouble with. It was people like Kendra Wu, Jesselle Villegas, Jayvee De Castro, and Rachel that made me scratch my scalp. There were several times I had to stop reading to go back in the novel and figure out who these minor characters were.

And since we are on the topic of characters, I have to admit that many of them bordered on stereotypes. Jennifer’s writing was much stronger when she focused on holistic qualities of the characters, because it made them feel more like real human beings.

That being said, I think Holding Up the Universe deserves to be read. In these tumultuous times, we all need a little more empathy. Jennifer’s novel examines just how lovely and wanted all of us are—a message the world desperately needs.

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