After a five year hiatus, we finally have a new John Green novel! After the wild success of his last book, The Fault in Our Stars, the hype for “what he would do next” has been sky high. A relapse of his OCD and anxiety disorders, the difficult subject matter, and the pressure to live up to the expectations set for him by Fault, are just some of the reasons we had to wait so long for his brand new book, Turtles All the Way Down.
“This is my first attempt to write directly about the kind of mental illness that has affected my life since childhood, so while the story is fictional, it is also quite personal,” said John Green. Producing such an honest and unfiltered account of your deepest pain is incredibly brave. Most portrayals of OCD come in the form of repeated hand washing or extreme neatness, essentially as physical behaviors that we can see and identify. There is a serious lack of content that demonstrates the side of OCD and anxiety that manifests within the mind. On trying to live a happy and functional life from inside the prison of your own thoughts.
Beware: spoilers ahead!
Unlike most of his previous novels, Turtles All the Way Down doesn’t bog itself down in plot. The “plot” was essentially background to the main focus, which was the mental health of 16 year old Aza Holmes. There were no voyages to Amsterdam, revenge schemes and road trips to New York, or epic dorm-room pranks to drive the plot forward. Instead the bulk of the story was entirely inward, a journey to define and gain control of the self. This was a very mature choice for Green that proves he is more than a “sappy YA author”… he is a damn good writer.
You would think no story could be more bleak than one about kids having cancer, but the language Green uses to describe the pervasive and damaging effects of mental illness feel much darker than The Fault in Our Stars, or any of his other work. It is an inescapable truth that we are all stuck inside of ourselves, and our protagonist lives in a hell where her “self” feels perpetually and incurably contaminated. The question Aza ponders throughout the novel is, “I don’t control my thoughts, so they’re not really mine. If you can’t choose what you think about or what you do, are you really real?”
And we do find that the majority of Aza’s actions and behaviors occur against the loud protests of her inner monologue. What should have been a light-hearted love story never comes to fruition, because Aza cannot kiss the boy she likes without panicking about the germs he may be giving her. “I’m not gonna un-have this” Aza sadly tells Davis when he implies they can truly be together once she gets better. She has spent years reopening a wound to drain and clean it, as she constantly fears she has contracted C. diff, so that her whole finger is covered in a callus. Particularly disturbing was the internal war waged between the last remnants of Aza’s sanity and the vicious voice of illness. Despite her best efforts to overcome the insidious urges, Aza actually drinks hand sanitizer to “cleanse” herself of microbes in one of the most gritty sequences I’ve ever read. “Please let me go,” Aza tells her unwanted thoughts at a particularly helpless moment. “I’ll do anything. I’ll stand down.”
Something that I was especially glad to see addressed was Aza wondering why it is such a widely regarded expectation that being “crazy” should make her a supersleuth or a genius. This ridiculous trope is a huge pet peeve of mine. Consider the protagonists of Monk, Dexter, Hannibal, even (as much as it hurts to admit) Sherlock Holmes… they feed into the idea that having a mental illness somehow grants you the ability to outsmart “normal people”. Finally someone says it: mental illness is not a superpower. It’s a disease.
It wouldn’t be a John Green novel without teenagers having wisdom and wit far beyond their years. Davis’s many blogs, his love of stars, his writing of poetry… it’s all so angsty, but so quintessentially “John Green”, that I can’t figure out if I love or hate it.
One of the very few issues I had was that every moment spent in Aza’s head was focused solely on her OCD and anxiety. I’m sure the point of this was to demonstrate that “chronic illness” means “omnipresent. Always there.” It is a poignant and relevant observation. However, in great contrast to Green’s other protagonists, I don’t feel like I know Aza Holmes. I’m sure John Green would agree that despite being plagued by mental illness, he is more than his OCD. He loves pizza and novels about conjoined twins, charity work and the Moutain Goats, etc etc. Although struggling with mental illness, Aza is still a person. I wish I could have gotten to know her a little better, outside of her turtle-filled whirlpools.
In terms of plot, Turtles All the Way Down is not the best overall story from John Green. But it is undoubtedly his masterpiece of writing. The graphic descriptions of tightening thought spirals that defy even your own rationality could only have been written by someone who has truly lived it. Knowing how personal and true this is to him added extra depth to the reading experience. It may have been a painful to get through at times, but Turtles All the Way Down is just as dynamic, thoughtful, and charming as you would expect from a John Green book. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another 5 years for his next one!
What did you think of this book???