Last year I read All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven and although I wasn’t entirely impressed, I understood why everyone loved that novel. It was emotional with a heart-breaking ending and a love story you could believe. It was one of those books that leaves you an emotional wreck, but in a good way. So when a year later Niven published Holding up the Universe, I thought I’d give it another try. I’m won’t be doing that a third time.
Holding up the Universe really is YA by the numbers. We have two protagonists, the popular one and the unlikely romantic interest one. In this case we have Jack, the handsome jock, and Libby, the fat girl with moxie. At first she hates him, because he acts like an asshole, then she finds out he has hidden depths and he founds out that she smells of sunshine and love is born.
The rest of the book is just a manufactured way of keeping them apart so they can come together in an emotional way at the end. There’s a range of side-characters in this book that do nothing for the plot and could just as easily not be there. The entire world here revolves around Jack and Libby which is shown perfectly in the plot point of Jack seeing Libby get lifted out of her house a couple of years earlier. He then sneaks into her room to steal her favorite book and sends it over to the hospital with the message ‘I’m rooting for you’, showing that not everyone – and especially not our romantic lead – is a terrible human being. Of course she finds out about this at the end of the novel and it brings new life to their love story, going just short of stating that these two were meant for each other.
This book felt diverse for diversity’s sake. The fact that Jack is black and Libby is fat are just placeholders for any other possible aspect of a personality. Jack could have easily been white and Libby could be disabled and the story wouldn’t be all that much different. Giving your characters diverse aspects as quirks doesn’t make them diverse and it doesn’t make them have personalities either.
But the thing that bothered me most about this book was Jack’s illness. He’s face-blind, which means he can’t recognize faces, not even his own family. His is the worst form of the illness some researcher in some university has ever seen, but somehow – almost magically – he falls in love with Libby and finds that he can recognize her face. Hers is the only one of all the faces he can see, teaching us that love can truly conquer all. Love can even heal a really complicated brain defect, because it’s truly that great. Is that really the message we want to learn? Just love someone hard enough, things will be fine? I know I sound like a miser right now, but love can’t magically fix everything. Even though you find the love of your life, you can still get ill and your life will not always be perfect.
Holding up the Universe is to me an old school Disney movie in disguise. Of course it’s great to get swept up in the romance and to escape in some kind of fantasy love story, but that really is all it is. An escape into fantasy. Of course I understand that escaping into a better world can be nice or maybe even necessary sometimes, but it’s not why I read. I want to learn from books, I want to read about difficult situations, I want to learn about lives that are different from mine and I want to come out on other end being a better and more understanding person. I want to be challenged by books and writers to think critically about my own life and that of others. I don’t want to consume mindlessly, just so I can try to ignore the harsh reality we live in.
I’m sure that there are many people who find Holding Up the Universe deep and comforting, but I’m just not one of them. The book isn’t badly written, but it just touches a nerve with me. Because to me, this book shows exactly the things I do not like about YA. So next year I plan on reading and writing about YA that teaches me something and that shows that life is more complicated that having romantic love solve everything. I guess Holding Up the Universe taught me something after all.
Review Copy attained through Netgalley with special thanks to the publisher Penguin UK.