Cover of Holding up the universe. Twelve blue smears, one of which is a blue marble.

About the Book

Title: Holding Up the Universe
Published: 2016

Cover Story: Oh, I Get It
Drinking Buddy: 100 Proof
MPAA Rating: R: Sexuality, Alcohol Use, Language, Crude Humor
Talky Talk: Teenage Wasteland
Bonus Factors: Obesity, Neurodivergent
Bromance Status: The Friend I Keep Talking About

Cover Story:  Oh, I Get It

Jack’s struggle to recognize people, and how Libby alone stands out. I see.

The Deal:

Libby Strout once made the national news when she had a health crisis and the EMTs had to demolish her house to get her out. You see, she weighed over 700 pounds at the time, too large to get through the door. She became known as America’s fattest teen, and she and her father received a slew of hate mail. She ended up being home schooled for years.

Now that she’s a high school junior, she’s ready to return to public school. She’s lost a bunch of weight, but still weighs over 300 pounds. A lot of kids at school remember who she is and why she disappeared. But now, Libby is not ready to roll over and take it. She’s going to make the most out of high school. She’s going to be popular. She’s going to try out for cheerleading. She’s going to get a boyfriend.

Unfortunately, a kid named Jack almost immediately does something so publicly humiliating to her, she wants to run back home. There’s no excuse for what he did…is there?

Now Jack, he’s a popular kid, an athlete, a ladies man. No one suspects he has a neurological disorder, not even his family. Jack has prosopagnosia, which means he cannot recognize anyone’s face. Not even his family members’. He can see their features, but the part of the brain that connects this with their identity isn’t working. “Hmm, black woman, long hair, brown eyes, standing in my kitchen. I bet that’s my mother.” Of course, it could very well be a family friend who dropped by unexpectedly. He lives in a world of perpetual uncertainty.

Jack can recognize Libby, due to her obesity. And when he realizes some of his friends are planning a hateful prank on her, he tries to prevent it by doing it himself, hoping the note he left her would explain he wasn’t really a jerk.

But she doesn’t see the note.

Can Jack show Libby that he’s not really that much of a douche? Could Libby learn to like this cute, perpetually confused boy? Could they end up being more than friends?

Drinking Buddy: 100 Proof

Two pints of beer cheersing

I would 100% be besties with Libby. She is not the fat girl who sits in the corner waiting for someone to talk to her. She is going to make her school realize that Libby Stroud is not just a heifer there to be laughed at. She tries out for the dance squad, knowing full well they’ll never let her on the team. She stands up for herself when she’s bullied, sometimes violently. And she gets her flirt on. She makes it clear she wants–no, she deserves–a man in her life. She wants a boyfriend. To make out. To have sex.

Jack, on the other hand, was an acquired taste. His initial bullying behavior soured me, but his intentions were gallant, if not misguided. For a guy who can never be totally at ease with anyone, he finds in Libby a friend who embraces an existence that might destroy a weaker person. And Libby is not a weak person.

MPAA Rating: R: Sexuality, Alcohol Use, Language, Violence, Crude Humor

Libby and Jack don’t shy away from the seedy underbelly of teen life, as they experiment with forbidden beer and lip kissing. But seriously, they’re both two passionate teens, trying to figure out where they belong in life, without exposing too much of their weaknesses to cruel outsiders. While it doesn’t take Nostradamus to realize there is romance in store for these two, their innocent kisses and hand holding is more passionate than any sex scene.

Talky Talk: Teenage Wasteland

The high school years are hard enough without the issues these two have. Jack is biracial, with all the bullshit ignorance of others that entails. He lives in a world where he could say or do something which could easily come across as weird or insensitive. His father just recovered from cancer, but Jack has a difficult time celebrating, as he knows his dad is cheating on his mother…with Jack’s teacher! Jack wants to let down his guard, but he can’t.

Libby, who’s used to being mocked and despised, has decided she’s going to turn things around. And if that means subverting the bullies, she’s willing to be just as cruel as they are. She’s a dangerous force to be reckoned with, but if you’re on her good side, she’d be loyal to the end. She becomes a bit of a hero to the school’s overweight, awkward, and otherwise outcast teens.

I was cheering for these two as a couple, if they could get over their issues.

Bonus Factor: Obesity

Libby started overeating as a way to cope when her mother died, and things spiraled out of control. America was amused by the footage of the huge teen being lifted out of her house with a crane. They sent cruel letters to the hospital where she was admitted. She was mocked by everyone.

But Libby is a good person, and even though she’s still the largest girl in school, she’s determined not to be anyone’s punchline. And Jack starts to see Libby as more than a friend. But is Jack willing to take that plunge? Does he actually like her, or is he attracted because she’s one of the few people he can easily recognize? Did he take her to that fancy out-of-town restaurant because he wanted to show her a good time, or because no one would see them together? He needs to work this out before that cute Danish exchange student steals Libby away.

Bonus Factor: Neurodivergent

Silhouette of a woman sitting sadly on the floor in front of a balcony

Jack can see people. There’s nothing wrong with his eyes. His brain–possibly due to a childhood head injury–simply cannot process their features into a familiar face. He can pick out people with very specific features, such as Libby’s size or his friend’s mohawk, but, as Jack describes it, it’s like trying to recognize people by their hands. He lost his last girlfriend when he made out with her cousin, thinking it was her. In one scene, he has to pick up his younger brother from a play date, and is confronted with a room full of identical ten-year-old boys. He ends up trying to put the wrong kid in his car, with predictable results. And there’s only so many times you can say ‘just kidding.’

Jack is going to have to confront his condition some day, but until then, he lives in a very confusing and frightening world.

Bromance Status: The Friend I Keep Talking About

This book is destined to be the friend I keep bringing up to my other friends. Hopefully, my review will stand up.

FTC Full Disclosure: Got this book from the library. I received neither money nor good pizza for writing this review.

Brian wrote his first YA novel when he was down and out in Mexico. He now lives in Missouri with his wonderful wife and daughter. He divides his time between writing and working as a school librarian. Brian still misses the preachy YA books of the eighties.