Holding Up the Universe

If by the cover or the blurb it had been made clear that a medical condition that is rarely/never written about in YA novels takes centre stage in Holding Up the Universe, I would have bought this novel far sooner than I did. The book focuses on Jack and Libby, two teenagers who defy all odds, meet and fall in love. Sounds familiar, right? Yeah, that’s because that’s the plot line to every single YA book on the planet (perhaps a slight exaggeration but not too far from the truth -but I’m definitely not complaining). However, in this book, there is a mild variation. Jack has a condition called prosopagnosia, basically meaning he is face blind. He cannot even recognise the faces of his family and friends, making everyone a stranger and school and home life all the more challenging (how he’s managed to keep this a secret for all these years is beyond me). Jack uses identifiers as a way to recognise people. Meanwhile, his love interest Libby Strout was America’s fattest teen three years ago, and is now entering high school for the first time.

Right off the bat I have to mention, Libby is not my favourite character. I found her to be whiny and perpetually irritated by one thing or another. She’s the type of girl who forgets that people make mistakes and immediately brands people as an ‘asshole’ if they mess up even a tiny bit, and does not let them forget about it. However, of course it must be acknowledged that this level of distrust comes from years of self loathing, insecurity and anxiety issues, so it is natural to have reservations about people and be sceptical of their intentions. But personally, I couldn’t be friends with Libby. The feeling of walking on egg shells around her would make the friendship far too strained.

One thing I did like about Libby though is her growing self love, and thus the emphasis the novel has on self acceptance. One section that particularly stood out to me is where Libby stands in the middle of the corridor, only wearing a bikini, handing out sheets of paper titled ‘YOU ARE WANTED’, along with a long, heartfelt passage about how she knows her worth and it’s time for others to learn theirs. While unrealistic (it’s highly unlikely that she’d be able to go from barely making it to school because of the anxiety she feels over her body, to standing almost stark naked where everyone can see her), this section is a good reminder that your value is not determined by other people. However many issues I may have with Libby Strout, you cannot deny her courage.

Now we move on to Jack. While I may like him more than Libby, I have to say that I’m not too fond of his character either. It’s not often I find a YA book where I don’t love at least one of the protagonists. This could be down to bad writing, but I find the drastic change from Jack’s inner monologue being conflicted and distressed to suddenly being swamped by an influx of confidence and arrogance, slightly off putting. I realise that this swagger is for show, so when this happens in the dialogue I can understand it. But when he goes from emotionally confessing his deepest, darkest secrets to instantly changing his personality to the other end of the spectrum, out of nowhere, it seems much more unrealistic.

Jack seems a little more human than Libby to me, with an unpredicatable side that makes him more likeable. This is seen when he is talking to his younger brother, Dusty. Dusty wants to bring a purse to school, and even though Jack tries to convince him that it’s a bad idea and other people might get ‘jealous’ (aka bully him), he does it in a way that shows he’s trying to be considerate and sensitive towards Dusty’s feelings. It’s important for younger teens to see that it’s normal to want to express yourself in anyway, whether that be by disregarding gender stereotypes, or conforming to them.

By including prosopagnosia in this novel, it’s giving awareness to younger readers who perhaps have never heard of the condition (I know I hadn’t). It’s definitely an interesting read in terms of how people with this disorder manage to go about their daily lives. The idea of using identifiers seems an tiring concept, as you would always have to be on guard and concentrating on who’s in front of you, especially if, like Jack, others don’t know about your condition. Whatever identifiers Jack uses, he narrates. For example, “Caroline (dark skin, smells like cinnamon, beauty mark by her eye)”. This forces the reader to continually repeat and memorise these same identifiers and therefore as soon as the character is mentioned again, such as Caroline in this case, these are the first aspects about her that come to mind. Just as they do with Jack.

A negative I found in the novel is that once Jack starts to fall in love with Libby, he all of a sudden starts to remember her face when she’s not in front of him. “If you asked me to tell you what Caroline’s eyes look like, I couldn’t tell you. Even though I can describe them when I’m looking directly into them, I can’t describe them when she’s not in front of me. But I can tell you what Libby’s eyes look like”. This is a sweet yet somewhat unrealistic notion that romance can cure his cognitive disorder. I’m by no means claiming to be an expert in this area, but for a boy who for 16 years has never been able to recognise faces or facial features to suddenly turn around and say, ‘hang on, never mind’, is slightly ridiculous. Of course though, without the romance cliché of describing in detail the other person’s appearance, particularly their eyes, it wouldn’t tick that box, and that’s one that most standard YA novels include.

Holding Up the Universe is, in my opinion, a well written book and a pleasant read. To say I had little to no interest in Libby, and only moderate interest in Jack, the fact that this book still drew me in is impressive and shows that the plot was well crafted.


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