Jennifer Niven – the queen of second chances.
If you’ve read one of my previous blogs about disappointing and overrated books, you’ll know that I didn’t really enjoy Niven’s first release, All The Bright Places (2015). Here’s what I had to say in that piece:
Every time someone asks me about this book, I always say that it’s unbelievable. And I don’t mean that in a good way. I mean that I literally could not believe a single word of it, which is worrying as it’s intended to be a believable story for and about young adults.
This was so highly recommended by many and varying sources – the world famous Zoella gushed about it on her vlog and added it as a must-read on her book club. My own workplace had it is a must read of the year and even featured it several times as a young adult book of the month. It even won the Goodreads 2015 young adult book of the year. And I still don’t believe it.
If you log in to Goodreads, the reviews of this one are gushy teenagers who tell how this book “changed them” and “moved them to tears”. I guess I should have known better…
All The Bright Places is primarily concerned with two main characters. Theodore Finch is our male lead, obsessed with death and killing himself, but in equal parts funny and eccentric. Violet Markey, our female lead, is grieving her sister’s recent death and generally keeps inside her shell. When the pair meet atop the bell tower at school, it’s unclear as to who saves whom – and so, they embark upon a friendship and romance that will change the scope of both of their worlds.
The main issue that I took with this book were the characters themselves. Their traits just didn’t seem realistic or compatible. Unfortunately Finch and Violet are total young adult clichés, and they could have done with a few more personality traits to make them seem really alive (no pun intended) rather than complete archetypes from a debut novelist.
But the main issue I took with this book was the treatment of mental illness throughout. Clearly, the two main characters are suffering from different forms of depression and bipolar. But their symptoms are effectively ignored by all of the adult characters in the novel – which again, adds to the lack of realism of the book. Would that not be concerning as, say, a parent, teacher, counsellor? Secondly, it was majorly glossed over as a legitimate issue plaguing young people in contemporary America and worldwide. It was merely treated as a cutesy way to experience a love story between the pair. I’m sure that the praise for this one would not be as high if the characters were suffering from a physical illness or extreme violence and it was treated in the same way as mental illness is.
I’m not going to get into too much of a rant, picking apart each and every individual reason why I didn’t like this book. Because certainly it wasn’t all bad – it was at its best at about the 75% mark of the book, but it was just too slow to start and I really strongly disliked the ending so it meant that I was ultimately very disappointed in this book.
However, I’m not going to give up on Jennifer Niven just yet! I took the chance of purchasing her latest release, Holding up the Universe in the hopes that I find it more enjoyable than her debut. It sounds like it has real potential, so I’m looking forward to (eventually) reading it. I will be sure to write about my thoughts!
And here it is!
Clearly, despite not enjoying All The Bright Places, I found enough potential in it for me to try reading her books again. If it was truly awful, I know that I would probably never even consider buying another of her books! So that’s certainly something to say to its credit. So when Holding Up The Universe hit the shelves, and after finding out more about the plot, I was keen to give it a go.
I’m very glad that I gave her this second chance, because I did really enjoy Holding Up The Universe. This is stylistically quite similar to All The Bright Places, in that it follows two teenage protagonists, Jack Masselin and Libby Strout, each with personal tribulations that are making their high school experience personal versions of hell. Libby Strout was formerly better known as “America’s fattest teen” and had to be cut free from her home. After spending years in her room and mourning her mother’s death, she is ready to face high school head on as a renewed version of herself. And Jack – although he gets along with everybody and has huge swagger – has discovered that he suffers from a rare disease that means that he is incredibly distant from his peers. He cannot recognise faces and everybody, including his own family, are strangers.
When Jack and Libby meet after being tangled in a cruel game, they are in detention and counselling and are, frankly, pissed off. But all of this starts to change when they realise something incredibly startling about each other, and what they mean to each other.
Eventually Jack and Libby find themselves seeing each other in a whole different light, which is perhaps the most startling for Jack, as he finds himself able to remember details about Libby and the way she stands out from the crowd. And this is something that he has never experienced before, not even with his own parents or brothers. This is incredibly heartwarming to read from both characters’ perspectives, as it gives Libby a great sense of self-worth, given that it has been something she has been lacking for such a long time in her life, which has had so much sadness.
Although it sounds as though this is a sob story, it is rather empowering, funny and lighthearted at times, but it is balanced in equal measure with its heartbreaking moments. For every clever quip that Jack quotes, there is a moment of anguish where he, for example, cannot pick up his younger brother from a party because he does not recognise his face. For every moment that Libby has an empowering and “you go girl!” moment in the book, they are counteracted by the cruel taunts that she receives written to her and left in her locker every day.
I’m certainly not saying that this book was perfect – not by any stretch of the imagination. Given that it was written for young adult readers, there is a fair amount of sap that “fills out” the book. But this is to be expected and some readers can even find moments of joy in this, which is the entire point of the subjective reading experience! But in terms of a recovery from All The Bright Places, Holding Up The Universe was a great, fun and enjoyable read which seemed to be really well researched and certainly one that I would recommend to readers both young and old.