There are those books that grab you by the collar, pull you beneath their pages, and drown you in adventure before you’re fifty words in. Turtles All the Way Down by John Green is one of those books.
Author: John Green • Publisher: Penguin Books • Released: 2019
Green begins the story of Aza by transporting you directly into her spiraling ruminations. I find myself racing through the pages, her thoughts becoming my thoughts, as I’m introduced to her lunch table friends, her school, her home, and the newly orphaned, billionaire boy who lives just down the river.
Turtles All the Way Down opens as a mystery: Russell Pickett, the billionaire father to Aza’s childhood friend Davis, is missing. There’s a reward for information leading to his location. Aza and her best friend Daisy (who writes Star Wars fan fiction and is easily one of the best YA sidekicks I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading) embark on an adrenaline and Applebees-fueled search of the internet that eventually leads them to the grounds of the Pickett estate. The first few chapters drip information to the reader through Aza and Daisy’s coupon-funded dinner dates and late-night drives. These pages melt through my palms as the teens are caught trespassing, and Aza and Davis connect in the silent spaces between their grief for loved ones lost.
From there, however, the story shifts. Turtles All the Way Down is not a mystery – it’s a Young Adult novel. Unfortunately, when the plot turns away from Russell Pickett’s disappearance and zooms in on Aza and Davis’ stumbling relationship, it also slams the breaks on its pacing. The middle chunk of Green’s book drifts down a lazy, forgotten river of text messages, midnight star gazing, and will-they-or-won’t-they tension. I never feel romantic chemistry between Davis and Aza; their moments of closeness feel more like two wounded people on the cusp of adulthood clinging to hopeful childhood memories. The switch from mystery to adolescent make-out sessions leaves me feeling like I started another book – a doomed romance between two star-crossed lovers perhaps – and one that I’ve read a million times before.
However, Turtles All the Way Down offers a refreshing, realistic, and personally relatable twist: our heroine Aza suffers from anxiety and OCD. She experiences frequent patterns of obsessive and uncontrollable thoughts that compel her to act irrationally and self-harm. Aza cuts, disinfects, bandages, and then reopens a self-inflicted wound on her thumb throughout the novel. This action is connected to her acute awareness of the presence or absence of germs – mainly the bacteria C. diff. She spends hours (and Green, pages) contemplating these germs’ theoretical, Wikipedia-researched ability to control her brain. The result leaves her questioning her reality and struggling to control her exposure to germs if she wants to live a normal, teenage life. The experience of reading these mental spirals is both harrowing and cathartic: never before have I read such a comprehensive and empathetic description of what it’s like to live with crippling anxiety.
Aza’s life with anxiety and OCD takes on more and more of the focus as the book enters its final chapters. She’s forced to deal with how her illness affects, not just herself, but the people around her that she loves. These moments of internal reckoning are not easy to read, but they’re also, paradoxically, the moments I feel the urgency of the first half of the novel return. I have come to care about Aza, and I want to make sure she made it out okay.
There’s a moment after the immediate crises of Aza’s life have passed that I think the book should have ended. Unfortunately, Green creates an epilogue for Aza that feels contrived, reading like an entry in a school yearbook. The shift in style feels ingenuine to the raw, personal narration of Aza’s life and thoughts. Perhaps Daisy wrote the ending of this book as an apology to Aza. After all, “life is a story told about you, not one that you tell.”
You should read this book if you enjoy contemporary YA romance. While Davis and Aza’s relationship ultimately takes a backseat to Aza’s internal relationship with her disease and how it affects her family and friends, it does bring a soft hopefulness to Aza’s story. Their time together is every bit as syrupy sweet as YA romances tend to be even when falls short of igniting a spark in the reader.
You should also read this book if you are someone, know someone, or especially if you love someone living with anxiety or OCD. Green’s expert narrations offer an inside-out view of what it can be like trying to experience life while fighting a million mental battles. What I liked about the ending – not the epilogue ending, but a chapter before that – is how tangible Aza’s conclusions are. There are no sweeping epiphanies about her OCD, her anxiety does not disappear, and there are no supernatural moments where all of her questions about the microbes are answered therefore relieving her of the crippling anxiety that actually plagues her brain. Instead, Aza comes to embrace the absurdity that it just might actually be “turtles all the way down,” and happiness while living with a mental illness is more possible than she ever believed.