This book has been controversial ever since the first blurb was released. I'm pretty sure I reacted with shock, disdain, and disgust when I learned it centered around a teen girl who had to be cut out of her house because she was so fat.
If you take a stroll through Twitter or dive into the Goodreads reviews for Holding Up The Universe, you will find a lot of anger. And that anger is justified, coming from a long line of books abusing fatness as some sort of weird pity trope, or as something to be lost, not found. However, I don't think that Universe deserves the level of hatred being flung at it.
My ultra-controversial opinion of this book is that it handled the main character with sensitivity and grace. I actually had more issues with some of the side stories and supporting characters than I did with Libby Strout, once America's Fattest Teen, now America's most kick-butt lady. For real.
I fully acknowledge my thin privilege in this review. I am not fat. I don't know what it's like to be bullied or hated or mooed at because of my size. This is not my mirror. I hope that the struggles I've gone through with my weight and my own body image (which, to be completely frank, is the absolute pits right now) have made me more compassionate and understanding. I will vehemently call out fat-shaming, either in books or in real life. But I know that simply by writing this review, I'll make a lot of people angry.
My advice is this: you know yourself. You know what will hurt you. If you feel like reading this book will trigger you in any way, don't read it! You have that choice! Conversely, don't condemn the book if you haven't read it, or at least dipped your toes into it. And I would never tell anyone that they cannot read this book. That's not my job, either as a librarian or a blogger or a human being.
Ready? Here we go!
It's Libby Strout's first day of high school ... as a junior. She's been homeschooled for several years--ever since her mother died and she decided to eat and eat and never stop. At one point, Libby weighed 653 pounds. She suffered from anxiety attacks that were so severe that she believed, truly and wholeheartedly, that death was imminent. She laid in her bed and panicked. After being rescued by the fire department, Libby made changes. She now weighs around 350 pounds, and in her own words,
"I'm fine with that. I like who I am. For one thing, I can run now. And ride in the car. And buy clothes at the mall instead of special-ordering them. And I can twirl. Aside from no longer being afraid of organ failure, that may be the best thing about now versus then."Her dream is to join the school's famous dance troupe. She doesn't let weight or what other people think of her weight stop her from going after what she wants.
Jack Masselin has a secret--he has prosopagnosia, commonly known as face blindness. And this frightens him. He thinks of all the ways people could play tricks on him. He thinks of how he's not perfect. And he makes the very strange and illogical decision not to tell anyone.
Humans make tons of irrational decisons. You and I know that his parents would still love him, and that his friends would be like, "Okay, dude," but Jack is afraid. All he can focus on is his inability to recognize faces, and he doesn't think that he's acceptable the way that he is.
So he fakes his way through life with a swagger and a bucketload of charm to cover up the fear. You know, the kind of fear that hits when you can only identify your mom as Mom-With-Hair-Up or Mom-With-Hair-Down. Or when you accidentally make out with your girlfriend's cousin because they seriously look so alike! Crap.
When Jack decides to "help out" and jump on Libby for that day's round of Fat Girl Rodeo before any of his friends do (again: he's a totally misguided idiot), she punches him in the face and lays. Him. Out. I mean, I know violence doesn't solve problems, but this was one of the most delightful scenes in the entire book. For their actions, Libby and Jack get detention and have to participate in a "conversation circle" to work through their *feelings.* Jack confides in Libby, and then they fall in love, et cetera.
To be honest, the relationship between Jack and Libby was my least favorite part of this book. Thankfully, Libby does not change to fit Jack's ideal or to "save herself" by having a boyfriend, which commonly happens to the Outsider Girl who meets the Hot Popular Brooding Guy with A Secret. I know some people mentioned that she lost weight over the course of the book, but I didn't notice that (did I miss something?). Thank you, Jennifer Niven, for not going there.
Libby deserves better than Jack Masselin. She is an awesome character who vacillates between killer self-confidence and absolute panic. You know, like lots of other human beings. She doesn't let being fat define her, but she doesn't apologize for it either. She's also a super-fast runner and a talented dancer. Once, when she chases after one of the guys participating in Fat Girl Rodeo, Jack describes her as "flying" and a "gazelle."
But what does Jack do once he and Libby are dating? Um, he dumps her, because alas! She shouldn't be with someone with propoganosia! "What happens if you lose weight? You'd need to stay large for ever, and that's your identifier, but you're so much more than weight." Oh my goodness, Jack. Just shut up! You know how guys dig themselves into GIANT HOLES and then keep burying themselves with every attempt to get out? That is Jack in a nutshell. He honestly is attracted to Libby, but it's all about what is convenient for him.
Don't lose weight, Libby, otherwise I can't identify you! And I can't learn other ways to work with my neurological disorder because I have to keep it sooper seekrit because I AM JACK MASSELIN, HOT DUDE AND POPULAR GUY.
When Libby takes a stand for herself by standing in the school in a rockin' purple bikini, Jack's only reaction is to tell her to put some clothes on. Wow, possessive much?
And yet, as frustrating as he is, Jack doesn't really have anyone to show him how to be. His father is having an affair with his biology teacher, and tries to milk the cancer survivor angle to maintain people's good opinion of him. He gives Jack this pathetic speech about wanting more as a teen but then presumably getting "held back" by having kids and "Oh Jack, don't be too harsh on me!" As he finally grows up near the end of the book, Jack isn't afraid to tell his dad that he is ten kinds of nope. Hmm, like father like son?
Time and again, Libby shuts him down. She's frank with him and tells him that he's being a horrible jerk. And to his credit, Jack slowly starts to learn. There's this whole underlying theme of "seeing the person inside," which is as cheesy as the state of Wisconsin, but I can't knock off too many points for it. Just because I am a jaded cynic does not mean that the idea of seeing past the outside to the beauty of the soul is a bad idea.
There are so many good things in the periphery of the story, too. Jack and his brothers are mixed (White dad, Black mom). Niven avoided the whole brown-people-as-shades-of-beverages trap--thank goodness! Curiously, we learn comparatively little about what the Masselin family looks like other than the basics in a device that reminds the reader that Jack doesn't really remember what his own family looks like. Very clever! Libby's dad is very involved in her life, and he truly cares about her. They have a fantastic relationship, and I just kept thinking, "That's how you write about a dad." A lot of authors tend to kill off dads because ... they're inconvenient.
I'd also suggest that the entire marketing team for this book just walk away, because they're doing it no favors. Every time the blurb is revised, it gets marginally better, but it still uses problematic language in the name of sensationalism. Libby isn't "rejoining the human race"--she's going back to high school while dealing with a panic disorder that makes her feel like she's going to die. Jack doesn't save her--she's already saved herself.
And that brings us full circle: the character that people are most upset about is the warmest, most vibrant, most kick-butt girl. I wish I had a tenth of Libby's confidence. She refuses to accept society telling her that she is unwanted. She knows she is wanted. She is wanted and loved and needed, and she makes sure to tell other people that they, too, are wanted. All while wearing a purple bikini. I love you, Libby Strout. In a different way than Jack, but I do.
Read this for the chance to meet Libby, because you won't soon forget her.