Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

4/5 stars

Holding Up the Universe is a young adult novel about two teens each dealing with their own issues and trying to figure out who they are and how they want others to perceive them.  Jack Masselin manages his cognitive disorder defensively by sometimes behaving like an immature jerk.  He suffers from a condition called prosopagnosia, a severe face-blindness that leaves everyone a stranger, even the people he loves.  He’s scared that he is a freak and that somehow people will find out.  Libby Strout, once called America’s Fattest Teen, had to be rescued from her house at 653 pounds.  Libby has now lost about 300 pounds and is finally able to go to high school after being homeschooled for the past few years.

The catalyst for their unlikely romance is a cruel game called Fat Girl Rodeo, no meet cute by any standards.  Jack is, as usual, acting out so that people won’t find out his secret, and Libby’s subsequent reaction to it gets them both sent to the Conversation Circle, a detention/therapy for students who might otherwise get expelled.

Libby’s issues stem from losing her mom to sudden death, a brain aneurysm that may be genetic.  She is worried about her own possibility of ending up the same way, and is trying to have experiences that she felt like she missed being housebound.  She is aware that she makes other people uncomfortable by being who she is but doesn’t let that stop her from making friends, finding romance, and enjoying her high school experience.  Libby is conscious of not wanting to be the Sassy Fat Girl or a cliche or a spokesperson for overweight people.  She is refreshingly direct, brave, and positive.  She dares and makes the effort.

Jack has his own family issues, with a dad recovering from cancer that he was diagnosed with the week after Jack found out he was cheating on his mom.  Jack’s prosopagnosia means he has to find other ways to recognize and know people, and as a consequence, it can be really lovely and interesting to be inside his head.  Both Libby and Jack are well-written characters, and their combined stories are better than a story about just one of them.

This book is  charming and well-written, a coming-of-age story combined with a romance.  It’s a quick and entertaining read, and the romance focuses on the connection between characters who are probably most defined by the issues they have to confront.  Because of Libby and Jack’s specific issues, it can seem like less of a fantasy or wish-fulfillment romance than many YA romances out there, and readers who might want to delve more deeply into Libby and Jack’s individual coming-of-age stories might be stymied, as they  are sometimes eclipsed by the romance.  Interest in the author’s treatment of both will determine whether you want to read it.

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