Pro Tip: Never ever ever drop your book in the bath tub. Particular not when you are less than 20 pages before the end of a book that you’ve been reading, pretty much non-stop, for 4.5 hours. Turning waterlogged pages may be the most delicate of all operations. I mean, what if you rip the page?
OK, so, first things first, Holding Up the Universe didn’t make me weep like All the Bright Places did. But what it did do was suck me in with its characters, in particular the main characters Jack and Libby. Niven writes extraordinary characters. In both of her books, the characters felt like real people who you’ve known for ages. Like, she writes them so well that you know everything you could possibly know about them, even things that aren’t said. Niven’s characters are so detailed that anything you don’t know can be inferred. This is a very very rare gift.
Why this speaks so deeply to me is that Niven writes challenging characters. Her characters are complex. There are infinitesimal layers to these characters that get squashed in between the pages of these stories, so that you can’t help but pick up on the why’s of every decision a character makes.
Let’s start with an innocuous one: why is it that Libby watches Supernatural marathons when she’s stuck in her house, trapped by herself and the world around her? Could it be that those Winchesters are trapped in lives they can’t control? That they constantly fight against the powers of darkness so that the world might shine a little brighter? That they never seem to actually fit into the world around them because they are different? Also, on a subtler note, could it be because Libby herself fights to stay light and funny? Because both she and the creators of Supernatural use humour to make fun of themselves? This one tiny choice for Libby’s character reveals so much about who she is as a person. (Maybe not to someone who isn’t familiar with the show, but to someone who loves the Winchesters and knows way too much about then, like I do, this decision paints a huge picture).
Now, there’s a spoiler I need to talk about because it fits into this. I am making you aware of this now. Do not come back, if you haven’t read this book, until I scream at you in capitalised, emboldened font, OK?
DANGER, WILL ROBINSON. SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH UNTIL YOU SEE THIS LOUD, OBNOXIOUS TEXT AGAIN.
So Libby names her across-the-street neighbours Dean, Sam, and Castiel. When she is trapped in her house, she imagines that these boys are her friends. She creates whole worlds in her head for these boys and herself.
As it turns out, Dean, Sam, and Castiel are Jack and his brothers. Now, what does it say about Jack, that Libby allocates the name “Dean” to him? Dean, the elder Winchester who is always looking out for his younger brother. Who acts tough but has a heart as soft and squishy as a teddy bear. The guy with all the swagger and charm, but is so unbelievably insecure in himself that he never accepts happiness when it comes to him. The Winchester who sacrificed a normal life so that his younger brother could have one.
I have a lot of feelings about Dean Winchester, OK?
This teensy tiny detail reveals so much about Jack. Because no author makes a decision like this lightly. Niven could have chosen to have Libby call Jack “Sam” or “Castiel” but instead she specifically chose Dean. And that speaks volumes.
OK, THE DANGER HAS PASSED. YOU CAN COME BACK NOW.
I don’t really know what to say about Jack’s character. His situation is foreign to me, as I imagine it would be to a fair few people who read this book. But he still feels real. The way Niven describes Jack’s way of identifying people is probably the cause of that. Actually, probably just Jack’s narrative voice in general. He is pretty matter-of-fact about his prosopagnosia for the majority of the book. He simply describes people as he sees them. This matter-of-factness makes some of the scenes in this book, like Jack almost kidnapping a kid because his “identifiers” (what Jack calls the details that help him to figure out who people are) are very similar to his little brother’s, absolutely heart-wrenching and terrifying. I think Niven just gets people, and that’s why she can write characters like this so well.
Niven’s works are character driven. There’s a plot, and things happen, but her books seem to be about how her characters navigate the world around them. So I could tell you the plot, but that’s not what makes this book completely unputdownable. It’s the characters. And it’s every character, not just the leads and the antagonists. It’s even Libby’s mother’s character, even though Libby’s mother is only in this story through Libby’s memories.
The only thing I take issue with in this book is that the blurb describes the book as a love story. I mean yes, there’s some romance and the whole “OMG I think I love this person” stuff, but by calling it a love story, it oversimplifies the story. Libby and Jack’s relationship with each other is not the main part of this story. It’s Libby and Jack’s relationships with themselves that matters. Their growing attraction and affection for each other acts as the catalyst for this self-discovery.
I’m not saying there aren’t “THIS IS SO ADORABLE” moments. But what I’m saying is that neither character moons about for chapters on end. Niven writes characters with so much going on, that the romance only flavours the rest of the story; it’s not the whole thing.
P.S. And just because Supernatural is a recurring theme in this book, I give you Team Free Will: