Review: Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

Holding Up the Universe - Jennifer Niven

Initial reaction reading this book: I don't know if I'm angry at this book as much as I am just completely left exhausted and drained by this book, and not even in a fulfilling way. (I mean, I've been left completely gutted by Courtney Summers and Lauren Oliver's narratives before, but in ways that made me feel like I identified with the weight of the character's struggles and situations, and to me, the characters they crafted were dimensional, well-thought out, and kept me reading to see what would become of the characters.

I think the problem I have with Niven's narrative here (and I had this same problem with "All the Bright Places") is that her characters are too singular in dimension to me, and the problems expounded upon are things that not only lack a certain connectivity despite being well researched and getting some things right in terms of the emotional roughness, but it doesn't feel REAL. It doesn't feel GENUINE. It feels like the characters are a means to an end for the purposes of creating a relationship and isolating their differences so that they are SOLELY DEFINED by those differences (despite claims to the otherwise). And the horrible sluggish pacing in this book just amplified that even more because it felt like certain points were rehashed and told instead of shown.

Full review:

I'll try to keep my reaction short and sweet for this book, but in sum: I didn't care for it for a number of reasons. I was willing to pick this book up despite my experiences with "All The Bright Places" (which I didn't care for either, but I did applaud some aspects of the novel in the aftermath of the overarching read).

Having picked up "Holding Up the Universe" revealed some of the same issues that bothered me in "All The Bright Places", but there were other issues that surprised me that were unique to this book. Again, I applaud the fact that Jennifer Niven chose to write about two teens with unique and horrifying experiences based on the prejudices of people who don't understand them and the fear associated with being continuously stigmatized and misunderstood (at least taking the intentional bare bones of this story for what they are). I applaud that she shows how the two teens with these unique experiences come together in a relationship of some form (again: bare bones intention of the narrative).

Problem is that the execution of this narrative for those intentions was not done well.

Problem #1: Poor pacing. I think this was the biggest achilles heel of the overarching work and I think that ruined it for me on one level. Reading the narrative felt like a rambled slog at times (though I don't fault the audiobook narrators who read this book - they were good). There's a good reason why a good rule of thumb for writing is SHOW don't TELL. This book told too many experiences of the characters and tried to explain them to the point where segments of the narrative felt repeated more for theme than they should've been. There were some moments where the narrative got it right as per Libby's struggles with public perception, bullying, and rationalization to her weight loss, but it felt too dictated to me. Also with respect to Jack's condition, he's struggling to make sense of it and come to terms with it, but I also felt like there were sections of the narrative that weren't paced well and repetitious to his experiences to where it kept throwing me out of the narrative despite his emotional upheavals and conflicts.

Problem #2: Characters being used as a means to an end. Let's just admit something off the bat: THIS IS A ROMANCE. And there's nothing wrong with that, I knew that coming in and was fine with that. But when you craft a narrative where the sole purpose of the overarching story is to bring two characters who are labeled by the world as "freaks" (and this was done in "All the Bright Places" to the point where I was like "Seriously?") to fall in love with each other and it's so blatantly obvious even if the characters have next to no chemistry and are "instaplaced" with each other - there's your problem right there. It's not only emotionally manipulative, it's really being reductive in terms of the personal pains and struggles that they're going through. It also reduces them to a "condition" rather than being more dimensional human beings. I hated that feeling in the narrative. I sincerely felt unconvinced of the relationship between Libby and Jack, even long after I finished the last page of the book. My mind kept tuning out because the narrative kept trying to "explain" this chemistry. I didn't like that at all.

Problem #3: Reducing characters solely to a "condition" or "status": This ties in with the last point. You know, I applaud anyone who will tackle what it's like to live as something that isn't fitting the majority or status quo or able body norm and presents unique challenges for the people whose stories are being told in a narrative, but you have to be careful that you don't shape the character's experiences solely by those terms. People (even those in stories) are more dimensional and complex than that. Yes, those experiences are essential to the person's life and identity, but they are not the sole definition points you should be using to shape that identity. Sure, exploring the challenges of attitudes that may be put to the person with that condition, and also exploring the fears, doubts, that person may have with that experience is essential and necessary, but you have to be careful about exploring it, because it can easily become a point where you become reductive in detailing that person's experience(s).

It would be like someone telling me "Oh, you suffered from epilepsy/seizures for the first eight years of your life, that makes you a freak, so the only person who could ever love or understand you is someone who is just as socially ostracized as you are, and there's no one you can talk about it to, and it's going to keep you messing up in life and you're just going to be miserable until you find love in someone else, because apparently your self-love doesn't exist unless you're with that person ." (To which I would say a firm screw that noise. Also: true story.)

*sighs* I feel like Niven sends mixed messages (again) in the narrative, this time about body image and a rare brain disorder, as opposed to her previous narrative with bipolar disorder and the survivor's guilt of another character. And while the narrative does explore backgrounds as to how they both came to be, it still feels like a means to an end which lends me to say it doesn't feel REAL or GENUINE.

If someone asked me whether this book was a good example of showing body positivism I would say a firm goodness no. Yes, it does show the prejudice and ostracism and isolation and self-loathing/fear the characters feel, but I don't feel like the narrative does a good job with actually DEALING with the complexity of those experiences and why they are, where they come from without dictation. Only towards the end of the narrative do the characters have something of a coming to terms and it's a quick resolution that feels unfulfilling and lacking the weight of the events that led up to that ending. sum, not my cuppa. And it saddens me to say that, yet again, I've had this experience with Niven's work. Maybe I'll have better luck in another work, I guess, but I'm not so confident, unfortunately.

Overall score: 2/5 stars.