[Mini Reviews] The Vegetarian by Han Kang & Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

The Vegetarian Rating:

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This was pretty unsettling to read. Hard to really summarize the essence of what this was about. On the surface it was about a woman with severe mental health issues, but dig deeper (well, more like scratch the surface a bit..) and it is about renunciation – of societal expectations to get in touch with your most primitive reflections. This story is told in three POVs and interestingly, none of them is Yeong-hye’s. The story progresses with her turning vegetarian to finally giving up on food altogether because of certain recurring dreams and her finally interpreting what they really meant. We get glimpses into Yeong-hye and her sister In-hye’s childhood as they grew up in a patriarchal family system with an abusive father. In-hye later muses whether that was one reason for her sister’s current state. As her “dream” triggers her “madness”, we see the men in Yeong-hye’s life unable to understand her decision to go vegetarian. Instead, they literally try to force-feed her in one scene. Throughout the book, Yeong-hye keeps retreating further away from everyone else and well.. into herself as she resists everyone else’s attempt to tell her what to do to her own body.

I considered quitting this book mid-way quite a few times because I couldn’t connect to a lot of devices used in this story, be it the characters chosen for the three POVs, the three-part narration itself which felt disjointed or the depiction of vegetarianism. I mean, I understand that this book wasn’t really about “vegetarianism” as such, but since so much of the book was about her giving up meat, I really can’t look past it. I didn’t get the people’s reactions around her, and I am not talking about husband and father (both were A-Grade MCPs who were upset for reasons that had nothing to do with her well-being) but I couldn’t understand why the general reaction was one of shock and distaste rather than being supportive or well, checking out more healthy, wholesome vegetarian food options. There were also some other things about the book that I didn’t understand – like the triggering circumstances that caused Yeong-hye’s psychiatric condition. It felt like some sort of half-baked attempt by giving her the background of childhood abuse (like some sort of afterthought, because hey, I need to give a reason, so let me throw in some random reminiscences of childhood). Another aspect of this book that I found irritating is that it isn’t just Yeong-hye plagued by dreams; we also have two of the three narrators getting abstract, creepy dreams and being tortured by it as they are trying to decipher it. Honestly, it was overkill, and well, just way too many people for a less-than-180 pages book that I, as a reader am trying to make some sense of.

This is just one of those books that I can’t rave about, but I am glad I read it, and would definitely not shy away from recommending.

Holding Up the UniverseRating:

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Synopsis2Everyone thinks they know Libby Strout, the girl once dubbed “America’s Fattest Teen.” But no one’s taken the time to look past her weight to get to know who she really is. Following her mom’s death, she’s been picking up the pieces in the privacy of her home, dealing with her heartbroken father and her own grief. Now, Libby’s ready: for high school, for new friends, for love, and for every possibility life has to offer. In that moment, I know the part I want to play here at MVB High. I want to be the girl who can do anything. 

Everyone thinks they know Jack Masselin, too. Yes, he’s got swagger, but he’s also mastered the impossible art of giving people what they want, of fitting in. What no one knows is that Jack has a newly acquired secret: he can’t recognize faces. Even his own brothers are strangers to him. He’s the guy who can re-engineer and rebuild anything, but he can’t understand what’s going on with the inner workings of his brain. So he tells himself to play it cool: Be charming. Be hilarious. Don’t get too close to anyone.

Until he meets Libby. When the two get tangled up in a cruel high school game—which lands them in group counseling and community service—Libby and Jack are both pissed, and then surprised. Because the more time they spend together, the less alone they feel.

Because sometimes when you meet someone, it changes the world, theirs and yours.

My reviewI was a bit skeptical after reading the synopsis and wondered whether this will be one of those stories about an overweight girl transforming herself into a svelte figure by the end of the book and shocking everyone. Then there is also this male protagonist who suffers from face-blindness (known as Prosopagnosia) . But body-image and self-esteem issues are addressed so well in this book that the love story stands on its own rather than not having any relevance beyond Jack’s neurological disorder and Libby’s struggle with weight.

I think what worked for this book is that by the time we meet Libby, she has already gone through some of the darkest phases in her life. We meet her when she is re-entering the “mainstream” life (high-school after months of isolation and counseling. So, when Libby makes friends, meets Jack, faces bullies, you know it is all on her own terms.

So, what about Jack? Well, he has had a different kind of struggle. While Libby’s lowest phase was telecast across electronic media and her struggle with weight is under glaring spotlight of bullies, Jack has somehow managed to hide his condition from everyone (so that people don’t make his life further difficult in school) until an incident forces him to reveal his secret to Libby. What follows after that is definitely one of the cutest YA love stories I have read so far.

There were few things I found a bit unreal – like the fact that Jack could hide his condition from everyone and that no one, not even his parents noticed anything amiss. This felt like one of those classic “clueless YA parents” tropes. I also felt some of the quotes, though mushy and cute, felt unrealistic when thought by or mouthed as dialogues by teenage narrators (especially some super-cheesy lines.. I couldn’t really imagine anyone talking like that)

I also thought the book had a pretty abrupt and quiet ending? I mean, it felt like the book started with a bang and ending with a whimper because the author didn’t know how else to finish it.

I really liked the book though and some of Libby and Jack’s inner monologues were pure gold. I think my 2017 TBR will now comprise of Niven’s previous works.

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3 thoughts on “[Mini Reviews] The Vegetarian by Han Kang & Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

  1. Read Diverse Books December 17, 2016 / 5:14 am

    These are pretty long mini-review, hehe. 😉
    Glad to see you enjoyed The Vegetarian. Yeah, it’s definitely not a perfect book and has received many mixed reviews. But I personally really enjoyed it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ishita December 19, 2016 / 6:05 pm

      Hehe, yea… I guess I do a “mini-review” when I don’t feel like I would be able to do a proper one because I am going through a reviewing block.. but I end up rambling quite a bit anyway!!! :p
      Yea, I am glad I read The Vegetarian, definitely made me look at body autonomy in a way I didn’t imagine.. (irrespective of whether I agreed with it or not)

      Like

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