Book Review: Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
A Review of Turtles All the Way Down
Written by John Green
Dutton Books, 2017
“Turtles All the Way Down” [is] a wrenching and revelatory novel that provides a window into what it’s like to live in constant fear of your own mind. —New York Times interview with the author, October 10, 2017.
John Green is a familiar name to anyone who appreciates young adult literature. His latest work, Turtles All the Way Down, came out in October and the YA world has been understandably abuzz about it. It is a consuming novel that breaks your heart and mends it up again with Scotch tape and sheer force of will.
The protagonist Aza “Holmsey” Holmes’ struggle with anxiety and an unnamed compulsive disorder (presumably OCD) is so tangible you could reach out and touch it. Her fictional struggles read as autobiography, and indeed, she is a carefully constructed portrayal of Green’s own mental illness.
In his New York Times interview (linked above), Green discusses being unable to “escape the spiral of my thoughts” in his battle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. After going off medication, plummeting, and recovering once again, he began writing the story of Aza. He says, “it was difficult to write about anything else…the topic demanded itself.”
Like Green, 16-year-old Aza is unable to escape the self-destructive spiral of her own thoughts. Her relationships with best friend Daisy and boyfriend Davis are tested to their breaking points and beyond. Her mental illness has rendered her completely self-absorbed and self-hating, but unable to move past her compulsions.
Throughout the book, Aza and Daisy work to solve the mystery of Davis’ father’s disappearance. There is a $100,000 reward for information leading to the discovery of the missing CEO who is under police investigation for shady business dealings. Daisy is in it for the money; Aza for the money and something deeper. She and Davis first met at “sad camp” — a place for kids who have lost a loved one — years ago. They had bonded at age 11 over the death of Aza’s father and Davis’ mother, but have had little contact since. Until Davis’ missing father, the $100,000 reward, and Daisy’s doggedness drag them back into each other’s lives.
Aza’s illness, which requires her to see a therapist regularly (which she does) and to take medication (which she doesn’t), manifests itself through a constant dread that she will contract a fatal intestinal bacteria. She worries at a cut on her finger, becomes lost in her own thoughts, often feels nauseated, and then, secretly begins drinking hand sanitizer. Aza knows her behaviors are not rational and yet she cannot stop.
Each person in Aza’s life reacts differently to her struggle. Her mother is worried and helicoptery. Daisy, while outwardly stoic and patient, is inwardly often fed-up and feels unseen and unheard by her best friend. She vents her own pain into Star Wars fan fiction, crafting an infuriatingly annoying character in Ayala whom her online fans love to hate on. Aza’s boyfriend Davis tries to understand and says he likes who and how she is, but Aza, who is repulsed whenever they kiss, knows this can’t be true.
The plot of Turtles is above average but not particularly ground-breaking. It’s amusing at times, implausible at others, but it serves its purpose which seems simply to provide a framework in which to guide the reader down the dark spiral of Aza’s illness and back up to the light of hope. And in that way, the plot succeeds, as does Green.
This is a book that only Green could write. His unique struggle with mental illness, as personified in Aza, had depths and layers not often seen in young adult literature. Too often mental illness is portrayed as comical or pitying or almost vaudeville in nature.
But Green gets it. He sees it. He lives it. And he knows how to portray it in a way that is both real and relatable. His longtime editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel, called the book an “unbelievable act of translation,” and this seems a perfect way to describe it. Green’s undeniable talent made Turtles the beautiful and mesmerizing work it is, and his understanding of the depths and breadths of mental illness infused that work with realism and hope.
It is not Green’s style to wrap up his novels in pretty packaging and neat little bows, and so, Turtles All the Way Down does not end with Aza all better or all the questions surrounding Davis’ father’s disappearance answered. Uncertainty is a way of life, and it is certainly the way of mental illness, and Green remains true to this as he concludes his latest work. Though we, as readers, may have wished Aza’s life washed clean of anxiety and compulsions and a “normal” (whatever that looks like) teenager emerged whole and ready for college, it would have been disingenuous had it all ended that way.
After all, as Green states in his NYT's interview, “[Mental illness is] not a mountain that you climb or a hurdle that you jump, it’s something that you live with in an ongoing way. People want that narrative of illness being in the past tense. But a lot of the time, it isn’t.”
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