I came across John Green’s latest novel Turtles All the Way Down one Sunday afternoon, for $20 on the top twenty shelf in The Warehouse. I already knew of it and had filed it away on my ‘maybe I’ll read it sometime’ list, like the unread John Green books I already own. But, it was only twenty bucks; a friend had recommended it to me; and I like turtles. Spoiler alert: there are no actual turtles. There’s a tuatara, though.
Like John Green’s other books, Turtles All the Way Down is about teenagers being teenagers and learning life lessons. Sixteen-year-old Aza struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety. She and her best friend Daisy hear about the disappearance of Russell Pickett, billionaire and father to Aza’s childhood friend Davis—more specifically, they hear of the $100,000 reward for any information leading to Pickett’s whereabouts. Daisy convinces Aza to do some detective work, which leads to Aza reconnecting with Davis. Everywhere she goes, however, Aza’s own mind torments her, trapping her in inescapable ‘thought spirals’ and convincing her again and again that the callus on her finger must be infected.
This is my first John Green book, and, as I understand it, his most personal. Being that he suffers from OCD himself, I think it’s safe to assume that many of the more intense sections of the book, dealing with Aza’s mental illness, are inspired by personal experience. His descriptions of Aza’s ‘thought spirals’ are downright visceral. If you’re prone to anxious thoughts, or particularly empathetic (or worse—both), then these parts of the book are almost disturbingly immersive. This is part warning part praise. It takes some powerfully evocative writing to be able to project such a specific experience.
I was also impressed by Green’s ability to capture the teenage voice with a fair amount of fidelity. Young adult novels are rarely written by actual young adults, and as such the dialogue often comes off as ‘trying too hard’ or ‘these teenagers don’t sound like teenagers’. Speaking of teenagers being teenagers, however, I have read some other reviews which point out commonalities across Green’s books, wherein his teenaged protagonists are uncannily philosophical. This was definitely something I’d picked up on myself: these sixteen-year-olds were sharing existential thoughts that didn’t occur to me personally until I was at least eighteen.
Some books focus on plot, others on story. The lynchpin of Turtles All the Way Down is definitely Aza’s personal story, with the fugitive billionaire plot taking a back seat. It’s a compelling read, and you certainly don’t have to be a teenager or suffering from mental illness to be able to take something from it—even if that something is just a little more empathy and understanding.