Jennifer Niven: 'Holding Up The Universe' Shows Readers They Are Necessary And Loved

In Holding Up the Universe, I tell the story of Jack and Libby, who meet through a cruel high school prank. It’s a novel about seeing and being seen, about learning the truth inside others. It’s about acceptance. It’s about love.

Others have defined Libby by her weight her entire life, even though she doesn’t let it define her. She’s been bullied. She’s suffered from anxiety so debilitating she couldn’t leave the house. And, worst of all, she has lost the person she loves most. Yet she’s bold and confident and completely herself. And she loves to dance. When we first meet her, she is returning to school for the first time in five years, ready to take on the world.

Jack has swagger. He’s charming, he’s supercool, he’s the man, but he also has a secret. He has something called prosopagnosia, a neurological condition that leaves him unable to recognize faces, even his own. He can see faces—nose, mouth, eyes—but he can’t remember them. It’s as if he’s always walking into a room full of strangers.

My first encounter with prosopagnosia was through people I love who have it to varying degrees. I was interested in how they navigate the world, specifically how they find the ones they love. I was especially struck by something one of them said about how he identifies people—because he can’t remember them in the conventional way, he remembers them by “the important things,” such as how many freckles they have and how nice they are.

I was especially struck by something one of them said about how he identifies people—because he can’t remember them in the conventional way, he remembers them by “the important things,” such as how many freckles they have and how nice they are.

I thought, Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this was how we saw others?

The very first thing I learned about myself, when I was a little girl, was that people treated me like a princess, even though all I wanted was to solve mysteries and explore prison ruins and climb around in the dirt at the archeological sites that littered my Maryland town.

When I was 10, we moved to Indiana, where I never felt at home. At age 12, I started developing. Fast. And eating. A lot. I gained weight. I wore braces. My hair was curly. My thighs were big. And suddenly I was treated differently. My grandmother told me, “You’re too pretty to be fat.” Until that moment, I had felt fine and happy in my skin, but these other people—classmates, a teacher, my own grandmother—were suddenly telling me I wasn’t fine and I shouldn’t be happy. That was when I learned something else about myself: my weight made people uncomfortable. I could never understand this. What did my size have to do with them?

That was when I learned something else about myself: my weight made people uncomfortable. I could never understand this. What did my size have to do with them?

I began to feel as if I’d somehow betrayed everyone. Like I’d let them down. I said to my grandmother, “Why can’t I be pretty and fat? Why does it have to be one or the other?” But she didn’t have an answer, at least not one that made sense to me.

I remember being picked last for kickball. I remember the humiliation of gym class, wearing my too-tight gym uniform, and the gymnastics routine I struggled with, while the other girls flipped and cartwheeled on the balance beam. I remember the mean things people said. And I remember entering a room and feeling immediately self-conscious, wanting to disappear.

My parents were my safe place. My mom was one of those naturally slim people who tried and failed to gain weight, but my dad went up and down, up and down, like I did. They loved me no matter what. Curly hair, straight hair, braces, no braces, pale, tan, fat, thin. The way I looked never swayed their love for me. They had always taught me not to judge others. To look past the outside of people into the inside of them. To see them for the important things. During the time I was heavy, I learned a lot about the inside of people.

They loved me no matter what. Curly hair, straight hair, braces, no braces, pale, tan, fat, thin. The way I looked never swayed their love for me.

I grew taller in high school and shed most of the excess weight. But in college I gained it back. Years later, I lost and then gained it again, this time after my dad was diagnosed with cancer. Like Libby in Holding Up the Universe, I’ve always stress-eaten. But once I graduated high school, I stopped letting the opinions of others impact how I feel about myself. 

Like All the Bright Places, this new novel is a personal story. It comes from my own loss and fear and pain, and it comes from real people who are dear to me. It comes from my 12- and 13-year-old self. From the loss of my dad, which happened only months after the loss of my boyfriend (my real-life Finch), when I shut down completely and couldn’t leave the house because the world was too scary. From having to go back out into that world again and figure out my place in it. And most recently, it comes from the loss of my mom, who was my sun, and from trying not to worry — every day — that I will die unexpectedly, without warning, the way she did.

It’s true that I did not have to be rescued from my house (although I know people who have had to be), but I’ve needed rescuing more than once. Other people can aid with the rescue, by seeing you for who you are, by loving you for who you are. They can sometimes help you see things about yourself that you can’t. But the thing I’ve learned through all of it is how to hold up that universe on my own.

But the thing I’ve learned through all of it is how to hold up that universe on my own.

I still fluctuate in my weight. I always will. And that’s okay. Today, food is a constant struggle in a different way. I’ve developed so many food allergies over the last two years that every meal is a source of enormous stress. There is so much that I can’t eat anymore. But the only thing I worry about food-wise is what might make me sick. I don’t worry about what dress size I am or how big or small I am compared to other people.

As Libby says, You are wanted. Big, small, tall, short, pretty, plain, friendly, shy. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, not even yourself.

As Libby says, You are wanted. Big, small, tall, short, pretty, plain, friendly, shy. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, not even yourself.

That is why I wrote Holding Up the Universe—to let readers know that big, small, tall, short, pretty, plain, friendly, shy, they are wanted. They are necessary. They are loved.

Holding Up The Universe by Jennifer Niven, $11.98, Amazon

Images: Courtesy of Random House

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