Title: Turtles All the Way Down
Author: John Green
Genre/Themes: Contemporary Young Adult, Anxiety, Mental Health, OCD, Friendship
Blurb from Goodreads
It all begins with a fugitive billionaire and the promise of a cash reward. Turtles All the Way Down is about lifelong friendship, the intimacy of an unexpected reunion, Star Wars fan fiction, and tuatara. But at its heart is Aza Holmes, a young woman navigating daily existence within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts.
In his long-awaited return, John Green shares Aza’s story with shattering, unflinching clarity.
I like John Green. I do. There’s something about his way with words that I love.
And so I was excited to read Turtles All the Way Down which John Green has stated is his most personal book yet as he has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) like the main character, Aza.
According to Green it is personal “in the sense that it’s not entirely confined to the past for me. Having OCD is something that is an ongoing part of my life and I assume will probably be a part of my life for the rest of it.”
(John Green quotation from an Interview with the Guardian newspaper group that you can read if you click here.)
I guess if you have OCD yourself you should be very careful before deciding to read this novel as there are some repetitive behaviours and detailed descriptions that could possibly be triggering.
But if you are fully aware of what you are embarking on I do feel that there is much reward in this novel because for a nice change the depiction of a mental illness doesn’t feel cheap or tawdry to me. As readers we live inside Aza’s head for this novel and honestly, it was quite a scary proposition for me as someone who has never suffered from that particular type of anxiety. What I mean by scary is that this book opened my eyes to a different view of the world and what it must be like to live with this type of mental illness. And it’s harrowing at times. I was both frustrated by Aza’s inability to see that she was okay (because I wanted her to see what I see when I look at the world) and then saddened by that same inability of hers. I couldn’t understand that this was her reality. That her reality was mired by this pervasive and invasive illness. But I learned. This book helped me to make sense of that world.
I live with a longterm physical illness and for me personally the following passages truly touched me. Physical illness or mental illness… It’s all illness that we are living and surviving with, and these quotes I feel truly illustrate that.
“I wanted to tell her that I was getting better, because that was supposed to be the narrative of illness: It was a hurdle you jumped over, or a battle you won. Illness is a story told in the past tense.”
“One of the challenges with pain – physical or psychic – is that we can really only approach it through metaphor. It can’t be represented the way a table or a body can. In some ways, pain is the opposite of language.”
She turned to her computer, shook her mouse to wake it up, and then clicked an image on her desktop.
“I want to share something Virginia Woolf wrote:
‘English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache. . . . The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.’
And we’re such language-based creatures that to some extent we cannot know what we cannot name. And so we assume it isn’t real. We refer to it with catch-all terms, like crazy or chronic pain, terms that both ostracise and minimise.
The term chronic pain captures nothing of the grinding, constant, ceaseless, inescapable hurt.
And the term crazy arrives at us with none of the terror and worry you live with.
Nor do either of those terms connote the courage people in such pains exemplify, which is why I’d ask you to frame your mental health around a word other than crazy.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Can you say that? Can you say that you’re courageous?”
Look at times the book can be very cheesy and there’s an incredibly romanticised plot line about a billionaire’s son but there’s a purity of thought behind this analysis into what illness, be it mental or physical or whatever, really is. What it’s like to live with. And that’s the real reason that I like John Green. I always feel that hidden behind the teen love stories and manic pixie dream characters that tend to steal the spotlight and are traditionally what people be it reviewers or whatever focus on that there are always these little gems of paragraphs. These insights that can totally catch your breath and give you pause for thought. Just sometimes they are missed out on in favour of the love story (you should hear my rant about the film adaptation of TFiOS!!!! I was not impressed!!) At any rate, John Green is eminently quotable and he is definitely a YA author of value.
So I guess what’s an interesting thing to consider when reading any of these popular YA books that feature a main character suffering with any sort of illness is ‘is it overdone?’ Where is that fine line between something being purely for the sake of plot/drama/ being buzz worthy etc and when does a book feel truly honest like it has something worthwhile to say, something profound to represent the lives of similar sufferers or to teach those who are not familiar with the illness? I know I am very guilty of questioning what is and isn’t an author’s prerogative regarding the handling of illnesses.
Case in point: For me Carve the Mark was inappropriately written but as I was reading TAtWD I frequently questioned myself that little bit more. Just because a story in a book about an illness isn’t my story, isn’t how I have reacted, because it doesn’t marry with my experience of illness…does that make the book any less valid??? For the record I still believe CtM was a well intentioned but ultimately misguided attempt at depiction of a character with chronic pain but these thoughts and feelings I had while reading TAtWD made me question every thought and action that Aza experienced.
And ultimately Aza’s story felt honest to me. Yes she suffered with severe anxiety but to me it didn’t feel like it was too much. I know a lot of people have said that this book has about ten mental health issues smushed into one but Aza’s story felt truthful to me. It opened my eyes.
These days there are so many YA novels that feature mental health issues but there is very little talk of attending a medical professional, there is next to nothing about medical intervention and prescriptions etc and my pet hate…. love cures all! This book does not do that. There’s a love story that doesn’t conveniently forget the mental health issues, there are visits to a doctor, there is a lot of focus on Aza’s treatment and how she feels about it. But regarding the mental health issues it just feels more authentic than I have usually come to expect from YA.
However authentic is not a word I would use to describe the missing billionaire storyline!! But it actually serves as a nice counterpoint to Aza’s mental health issues. I also liked Aza’s interactions with Davis. I thought their relationship is really what helped me to understand how Aza’s mind worked.
“I took his hand, and part of me wanted to tell him I loved him, but I wasn’t sure if I really did. Our hearts were broken in the same places. That’s something like love, but maybe not quite the thing itself.”
And I did really love the end. It had just the right amount of bitter and sweet with a sprinkling of hope. Because what’s life without hope right??
If I was to offer up a few negative points:
- Grief and death: ***minor spoiler***
The death of Aza’s father. This was where I felt that possibly Aza was coping with too much. I know that the grief storyline was to bring her and Davis together but it wasn’t expanded upon enough for me. Aza already had enough mental stresses from her OCD/Anxiety and I felt that any fallout from the early death of her father upon her mental health was not adequately explored.
- The preposterous nature of the missing billionaire storyline:
Look my eyes rolled. A LOT. I mean fine. It was sorta light hearted but then it wasn’t really because Davis and Noah were genuinely suffering… So that whole main plot of the book was just a bit too eye roll worthy for me sadly.
- The bestie:
I’m just generally ambivalent about Daisy. Like I get that there are genuine plot reasons why I feel like we don’t know enough about her as readers (and I don’t disagree with those plot reasons…) but I’m just meh! She’s written a little too conveniently as a best friend in my opinion.
But overall I enjoyed reading this.
It’s the first book I managed to finish while as I was battling a own book slump so brownie points for capturing my attention. I’m torn as to the rating. Those passages I quoted make me want to say four but I do think that this is closer to a three star rating overall entertainment-wise because too many leaps of faith/suspensions of belief regarding the plot have to be taken when reading this supposedly realistic, contemporary novel.
Other Works by John Green I’ve Reviewed
- The Anthropocene Reviewed
- The Fault in Our Stars
- Looking for Alaska
- Will Grayson, Will Grayson (with David Levithan)