Book: Turtles All the Way Down
Author: John Green
Genre: YA / fiction
What it’s about: Aza spends most of her time thinking about the gut bacteria that makes up her microbiome and whether she might have contracted some kind of terrible infection. It’s not that she wants to think about that, it’s just that she can’t help it. Her anxiety medication and therapy help, but sometimes the thought spirals are inescapable. When the elusive billionaire father of her childhood friend goes missing–along with a sizeable reward for any information–her best friend, Daisy, convinces her they should Veronica Mars that situation. Aza reconnects with Davis who just wants to find someone who wants to be his friend for him and not his father’s money. Aza grows closer to Davis as they all search for the truth. But as her thought spirals worsen, Aza may not even be able to take care of herself, much less be in a real relationship with Davis or solve the mystery of his missing father.
My thoughts: John Green is well-known for several things: the internet community of Nerdfighters he and his brother Hank helped to develop, a huge platform of educational videos, and writing books. His books tend to involve a lot of introspection and precocious teenage characters. It’s kind of what he’s known for at this point. And all of that is still there in Turtles All the Way down, but it isn’t what really stands out. The stand out aspect of the book is without a doubt the representation of mental illness.
As someone living with anxiety myself, it was sometimes scary just how much some of the things Aza was experiencing / feeling were relatable to me. Mental illness is one of those things that is incredibly difficult for people to understand (for a lot of reasons), and between that and the stigma surrounding it, there isn’t a lot of great, honest representation of what it’s actually like to live with a mental illness. John Green gets it dead on. Of course, OCD / anxiety is something he has a lot of experience with:
Anxiety is such an inadequate word for anxiety.
— John Green (@johngreen) October 1, 2017
Turtles All the Way Down certainly isn’t a perfect representation of what it’s like to live with mental illness for everyone–that would be impossible. But it does provide a good picture of what it can be like, with one particular illness, for one particular character.
He manages to write about mental illness honestly and openly without either stigmatizing or alienating the experience OR glorifying it. In the book, it’s just a reality of Aza’s life as much as the fact that her mother is a teacher or her best friend is obsessed with Star Wars. It can be frustrating and confusing, but it also just is. There is no magic cure, and even though the people around her struggle to understand why she thinks and does the things she does, they try to just be there for her anyway.
Honestly, the plot mattered less to me than the characters and their experiences. It was there, but it didn’t bother me too much one way or another.
I did find both Aza and Daisy–the two best friends the story is really centered around–incredibly frustrating at times. But, then, they’re teenagers! Any teenage character who has it too together probably isn’t a very realistic teenage character, really. And more importantly, they did both learn and grow throughout the story–and the character traits that I found annoying were actually addressed and worked on for the most part. So, while at times they made me cringe, I think that was actually an intentional aspect of their characters / personalities.
And, yes, if you’re not a fan of John Green, this book probably won’t be for you. I know some people find the way he writes teenagers pretentious, and this book won’t make you think any differently. It definitely feels like a John Green book. If you are a fan though–as I am–then I think you’ll really like this book. It has the classic John Green charm and introspection, and the fact that it is so influenced by his own experiences with OCD / anxiety makes it all the more interesting. It’s not a perfect book, but–for me, at least–I do think it’s an important one.
TL;DR: A lovely and honest look at what it’s like to live with anxiety.
“Actually, the problem is that I can’t lose my mind,” I said. “It’s inescapable.”