I have a deep and abiding love for John Green. He’s a passionate advocate for reading and learning. He makes nerdish pursuits cool and I think he’s a terrific writer. Lord knows, I was a sobbing, snotty mess at 2 a.m. finishing The Fault in Our Stars. I was pretty excited, then, to get my hands on Green’s latest book, Turtles All the Way Down.
Aza is sixteen and suffers from almost debilitating mental illness. She has no control of her thoughts and her thoughts take her to some pretty unusual and scary places. Even the simple act of eating is problematic for Aza who finds “the whole process of masticating plants and animals and then shoving them down my esophagus kind of disgusting, so I was trying not to think about the fact that I was eating, which is a form of thinking about it.”
Still, she finds ways of coping. Daisy, for example, “played the role of my Best and Most Fearless Friend.” And then there’s Davis Pickett, a childhood friend with whom Aza reconnects after she reads in the paper that his billionaire father, Russell, has disappeared.
There’s not really a plot, but that’s not to say that nothing happens in the novel. Aza and Daisy decide they are going to play detective and figure out what happened to Russell. That leads to Aza and Davis picking up their friendship and discovering that they might have feelings for each other, which is complicated by the fact that Aza has spiraling thoughts. She fixates on things and can’t seem to stop, which leads her down a rabbit hole of worry. I suspect that anyone who suffers from anxiety or mental health issues will totally get Aza’s erratic thoughts. I didn’t, especially, but I thought Green did a tremendous job of illustrating how Aza gets trapped in her own head.
The sting of the hand sanitizer was gone now, which meant the bacteria were back to breeding, spreading though my finger into the bloodstream. Why did I ever crack open the callus anyway? Why couldn’t I just leave it alone? Why did I have to give myself a constant, gaping open wound on, of all places, my finger. The hands are the dirtiest parts of the body. Why couldn’t I pinch my earlobe or my belly or my ankle? I’d probably killed myself with sepsis because of some stupid childhood ritual that didn’t even prove what I wanted it to prove, because what I wanted to know was unknowable, because there was no way to be sure about anything.
Green has spoken quite openly about his own struggles with mental health. In an article with Time he said: “I still can’t really talk directly about my own obsessions. The word triggering has become so broadly used in popular culture, but anyone who has experienced an anxiety attack knows how badly they want to avoid it. It was really hard, especially at first, to write about this thing that’s been such a big part of my life. But in another way, it was really empowering because I felt like if I could give it form or expression I could look at it and I could talk about it directly rather than being scared of it. And one of the main things I wanted to do in the book was to get at how isolating it can be to live with mental illness and also how difficult it can be for the people who are around you because you’re so isolated.”
Turtles All the Way Down does not simplify Aza’s problems and there are no happy endings here, but I do believe this is a hopeful novel. And while it didn’t leave me a sobbing mess like The Fault in Our Stars there is much to admire here. Green remains one of my favourite YA writers.