Book Reviews From the Vault: Turtles All the Way Down

Although I am no longer a teenager, I highly enjoyed John Green’s latest novel Turtles All the Way Down. Ever since I read that book, I have been continuously thinking about the ways that we can be more empathetic towards people with mental illness. Check out this review to see why.

Since I am a person who reads everything, it makes sense that I review young adult (YA) novels even though I am past my teenage years. What a better way to start off this is by reviewing a book by one of the most influential YA authors today: John Green. Green has written numerous well-loved novels like The Fault in Our Stars, and his debut novel Looking for Alaska was even on the top 100 best-loved novels on The Great American Read. He has even created many online video projects with his brother Hank like the Vlogbrothers. Even though I do not know a whole lot about him outside of those facts, Green has come off as a guy who is intelligent, caring, and accessible. Those traits are definitely on display with his latest book and today’s review – Turtles All the Way Down.

The novel itself has two plots: one external and one internal. The external plot revolves around 16-year old high school student Aza Holms and her Star Wars-obsessed best friend Daisy as they investigate the mysterious disappearance of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett. The internal plot explores how Aza deals with her ever-tightening thought spirals related to anxiety and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

I will say this right now: I found the internal plot a lot more interesting than the external one. Mysterious disappearances are found in a variety of books, yet mental illness as the main subject is not-so numerous. On the other hand, the latter allows the former to unravel even more, especially when Aza and Daisy meet Davis – Russell Pickett’s eldest son and when Aza develops feelings for him.

Mental illness is never an easy subject to talk about for various reasons, yet Green demonstrates the ability to describe the indescribable. For example, as Aza makes out with Davis for the first time, she doubts if she wants to let him kiss her because of her fear of getting bacteria that can multiple and live inside her forever and possibly turning into C. diff although she makes it clear that she likes him kissing her. Throughout the novel, Aza also opens up her never-fully-healed callus on her finger in an effort to drain out what she believes to be pathogens. According to her, it sometimes works.

At the same time, Green acknowledges the frustrations of the people around Aza while dealing with her condition. Davis wants to get close to her, but Aza’s fears of microbials get in the way even though both clearly care about each other. Additionally, Daisy expresses her frustrations with Aza in her Star Wars fan fiction and even calls out Aza for being self-centered and never asking about her life and family. While some people like myself wanted to punch Daisy in the face, it is understandable that this was her way of coping with Aza’s increasingly erratic behavior since she understood very little of what was actually going on. It helps that Daisy tries to be more empathetic about Aza’s situation towards the end of the novel despite her slightly imperfect ways.

Green is capable of depicting mental illness in a non-sugar-coated and balanced way because he himself has OCD. I found this out while doing research for this review, and it makes Aza’s internal struggles all the more believable. This is especially true when Aza builds up the courage to explain what her greatest fear is to Daisy while in a dark tunnel. Daisy expresses fear of being in a creepy and dim tunnel, yet Aza is not creeped out by that, for she has a flashlight. That flashlight represents control over her circumstances. Without it, her fear of not having control takes over. I thought this was the most moving part of the entire novel. What also needs to be acknowledged is that Green never says anxiety and OCD in the book. Some people have complained about that, yet I do not find this as a problem at all. In fact, showing what Aza goes through daily allows readers to develop empathy for her rather than telling them outright, which may allow them to develop pre-conceived notions based on those labels.

As for MY complaints, I felt that the story ended a few times like Lord of the Rings: Return of the King did. There were plenty of moments that when they occurred, it made want to say, “And roll credits”. However, this is minor to the overall story. Other reviewers complained of how pretentious the teenagers, especially Aza and Davis, were. I can see where they are coming from, particularly when they start reciting poetry that I was not familiar with. However, I was not bothered by that overall. Both characters are intelligent and demonstrate unique perspectives on life given their circumstances; Green finds ways to express those thoughts according to those situations.

I listened to the audiobook version, which is narrated by Kate Rudd. Rudd has also recorded The Fault in Our Stars audiobook, so this is not her first rodeo narrating a John Green book. She does a great job at voicing various characters like the outspoken Daisy and the quiet Aza as well as to the thoughts inside Aza’s head, which are portrayed as sterner than what Aza usually is.

I would definitely recommend Turtles All the Way Down to anybody regardless of age, especially to teenagers who may or may not struggle along the same lines as Aza. In fact, this book will be made into a movie sometime very soon! Although John Green is known for YA novels, anybody can learn about and maybe even empathize with what goes on with people who have mental illness. For those people, there are days that might be good and days that might not be so good. But in the end as Green explains, life goes on.

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Published by emilyblakowski

I work at two public libraries in southeast Michigan, and I facilitate a book club for one of them. I also hold a Bachelor's degree in History and Theatre from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI; a Master's degree in Library and Information Science from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI; and a Graduate Certificate in Archival Administration also from Wayne. In my downtime, I love hanging out with friends, listening to music (like classic rock and K-pop), and watching shows like "Monty Python's Flying Circus"!

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