A/N: Spoilers ahead!
Holding Up The Universe by Jennifer Niven was a wonderfully written, beautifully expressed story of two troubled teens, at the peak, just before college starts and school slips away. Niven’s way of interweaving social commentary and mental health problems is as usual, on point.
She’s able to delve into the minds of her characters and tell their story from their perspective, understanding not only the teenage mindset, but that of a bookish girl, suffering with the loss of her mother and her weight, and the fact that she’s falling for a boy she shouldn’t, starting school again with bullies and to top it all off, she’s receiving hate mail in her locker.
Niven can enter Jack’s mind, who is suffering with a mental health disorder, known as Prosopagnosia, which means he does not have the ability to recognise faces, even those of his family. He has to identify people by their identifiers – the pigment of their complexion, lip shape, nose size, the size of their ears, hair or voice. He struggles with his identity and feels himself slipping into a dark hole, because he cannot even recognise his own little brother at one point. His father had cancer and is now cheating on his wife. Later, they decide to separate, Jack finally comes clean to his family and tell them about the trouble he’s having.
Together, these two teens stumble upon each other and form a connection that is tangible, breakable but real. As all bonds are. Bound with experiences, love and friendship, Libby starts to see Jack, not as the popular kid, but as a human being, with thoughts and feelings and a witty sense of humour, he’s quite smart and loves to dance.
Libby deals with bullies and hate mail at school and from strangers – after having herself rescued from her house, it became clear that for her heart and health, she’d need to lose some weight. At this point, she’d dropped out of school and was being home-schooled, the loss of her mother had hit her too hard and she was unable to leave the house. For years, then, she lost weight, to the point where her health was in check and she felt comfortable in her own skin. She’s not as slim as everyone else, in fact she doesn’t want to be. She loves her weight, the fact that she can shop wherever she pleases, can leave the house and go to school.
She’s dealt with people telling her to die, to lose weight, calling her ugly, saying that no one wants her, and of course, it gets to her, it knocks her down but what I really admire is her strength. She gets right back up. She’s not afraid to speak her mind and call people out. She’s healthy. She might lose more weight if she wants, she might not. But she is not going to for other people – she’s only doing it for herself, not for some popular girls at school, not for Jack, not for anyone. Her body is her own. And she flaunts it.
She stands there, in a bikini for the whole school to see and handing out letters that speaks to the students and teachers at her school – detailing the “you aren’t wanted”, notes she’s been getting. She doesn’t swear at them, she asks why – why does someone think it is okay to say that? She speaks out against her bullies and tells them she feels sorry for them, hatred comes from somewhere and it isn’t from Libby. It’s from whoever the person is, from their own minds.
“You are wanted,” Libby says. I’ve been bullied. And if I’d heard those words and had a friend like Libby, it would have made a huge difference. But I didn’t have that. I was called horrible names, shamed because I wasn’t watching my weight. I was a teenager. If I wanted to eat a burger, I was gonna eat a burger. If you want to eat a salad and organic foods, whatever it is, I don’t care – you eat that, you enjoy that. I’m not going to judge you for that. That’s your choice, your body, your food.
But that same kindness wasn’t given to me.
Sure, now I’ve lost weight. Not because I wanted to fit in. That never bothered me. But I did it for my heart and lungs which already don’t work all that well. I did it for my happiness, for my health, not for society’s expectations. Beauty does not equal slim.
You’re beautiful, as Libby says, “big, small, tall, short, pretty, plain, friendly, shy.” Beauty doesn’t have anything to do with your skin colour, your size, your height, your clothes. You know what beauty is?
Jack says it when he’s describing Libby –
“…I can tell you what Libby’s eyes look like. They’re like lying in the grass under the sky on a summer day. You’re blinded by the sun, but you can feel the ground beneath you, so as much as you think you could go flying off, you know you won’t. You’re warmed from the inside and from the outside, and you can still feel that warmth on your skin when you walk away.”
He says she has freckles, her eyelashes made her seem adorable but undeniably sexy at the same time. He loves her smile, she smells like sunshine, she makes him feel alive. When Jack says, he likes her eyes or smile, it isn’t about the way they look, it isn’t about her figure, her breasts – it’s about her. How she makes him feel, the meaning behind those eyes, the warmth in her smile. Her weight doesn’t matter to him, he thinks she’s beautiful as she is, warm and kind, because she’s witty, she’s smart, funny and dances like crazy.
Her personality shines through – she’s louder than life and her looks only complement that. Her looks don’t make her Libby. Her heart does. And Jack loves her.
His disorder isn’t suddenly fixed.
But what he realises is that he actually sees her, not because her identifier is her weight, it’s just her. When he pictures her, it’s not her figure, not her breasts, but the arch of her eyebrows, the way she wrinkles her nose when she laughs, the red of her lips, but the way the corners turn up as if she’s smiling when she’s not. When he pictures her all together, he doesn’t get what he does when he sees Caroline. He doesn’t feel empty. He sees her cheekbones, their curve, the way her chin looks, like a heart. The fierceness and softness and glow of her that makes her look so alive. His disorder may take away his ability to identify others, but it gives him the ability to see what everyone else doesn’t.
Not her physical appearance. Her heart, her warmth. Looks are secondary to him.
As someone who started off by being trapped in a stale relationship, with the bully Caroline, a horrible friendship group, Jack really comes out of his shell. He played along with the ‘populars’, doing what they wanted, which incidentally caused him and Libby to meet, but in the end, they don’t matter to him. In fact, they never did.
What does is; the girl who punched him in the face when she felt threatened, the girl who showed him popularity does not matter, the girl who showed him what real friendship is, despite them starting off as enemies, the girl who taught him crazy dance moves. The girl who he has to spend time with, apologise to, explain himself to in their school community service. The girl he finds himself wanting to hang out with. The girl who makes him feel alive.
The girl who beat up the guys hurting him, who flew at the bullies picking on another kid, who ran like lightening after Kam, who looks like she’s one with music when she dances. That’s who matters to him. The one that he fell for without meaning to.
The one that showed him it’s okay if you can’t see the world.
Because she sees for him.