No-Spoilers Book Review
Turtles All The Way Down by John Green
Life is painful for 16-year-old Aza.
The protagonist of John Green’s new novel Turtles All The Way Downis consumed by worries about germs – her own and other people’s. The voice in her head plays an endless loop of facts about viruses and bacteria, constantly warning her to use hand sanitizer or take more extreme action.
So it’s no surprise that Aza’s anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder interferes with her ability to live a normal life. Even during happy times, the nagging voice intrudes and ruins the moment.
Talk about exhausting.
How can this book be entertaining, you ask? Aza herself wonders how she can have such a loyal “Best and Most Fearless Friend” in Daisy. “Sometimes I wondered why she liked me, or at least tolerated me. Why any of them did. Even I found myself annoying.”
The answer? John Green has a winning formula. As in most of his other novels, Turtles features a quirky best friend, a romantic interest, and a mystery. The author’s sense of humor, talent at creating witty characters – real teens don’t talk like this, but who cares? – and ability to weave a compelling story drives you to turn the page.
Plus, Aza is Green’s most complex and compelling character to date.
Daisy drags her along to investigate the disappearance of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, whose son was friends with Aza at camp a few years before. The incentive? A $100,000 reward. As the book jacket copy summarizes it:
So together, they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Pickett’s son, Davis.
Aza is trying. She is trying be be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts.
John Green shares the condition of OCD with his protagonist, and he’s spoken openly about his mental illness journey. He concludes the novel’s acknowledgments with contact information for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (www.samhsa.gov, 1-877-SAMHSA7) and says, “…It can be a long and difficult road, but mental illness is treatable. There is hope, even when your brain tells you there isn’t.”
Intimate familiarity with Aza’s suffering is what helps the author tell her story with “unflinching honesty” (a phrase that appears in one book review and probably many others). Related to that is the novel’s title, which refers to the “mythological idea of a World Turtle that supports the earth on its back,” according to Wikipedia. “The phrase suggest that this turtle rests on the back of an even larger turtle, which itself is part of a column of increasingly large turtles that continues indefinitely….”
It’s an allusion for Aza’s mental health struggles, of course: she has no control over her body and thoughts, and therefore questions her identity and very existence. She is her anxiety, through and through.
I’ve read all John Green’s novels except Will Grayson, Will Grayson (which he co-wrote with David Levithan). He usually takes a couple of chapters to warm up, but Turtles rewards you for your patience. (This was my experience listening to An Abundance of Katherines; I abandoned it for a few days due to the whiny protagonist, but ultimately enjoyed this novel equivalent of a buddy movie.)
There’s one more reason why you continue reading Turtles: because you’re rooting for Aza. Do she and Daisy solve the mystery? Do Davis and Aza become a couple? Does Aza end up going to college? As in real life, the answers are not easy.
This might be why millions of readers love John Green. He treats his audience with respect and gives them the gift of a challenging, messy, hopeful story that rings true.
The verdict: This book is a keeper. Add it to your library. (Especially if you’re an aspiring YA novelist)
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