I’ve been a huge fan of John Green since I discovered his and Hank’s YouTube channel when I was in college, and shortly afterwards fell in love with his writing when I read Looking for Alaska. So when I heard he would be releasing a new book this year, I was so excited. I couldn’t stop talking about it, and I found myself counting down the days until its release.
So it’s safe to say I had a lot of expectations when I started Turtles All The Way Down. And thank god it didn’t disappoint. This book is powerful, moving, relatable, and written in that way that only John Green can. This is my spoiler-free review.
“I was beginning to learn that your life is a story told about you, not one that you tell.”
Turtles All The Way Down is a contemporary young adult story about a sixteen-year old girl named Aza, who suffers from severe OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). The story begins when Aza and her best friend Daisy decide to investigate the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, whose son Aza went to camp with years before. As they begin to investigate the disappearance, Aza reconnects with the billionaire’s son, Davis, Aza and Daisy’s friendship is put to the test, and Aza faces the tightening spiral of her own thoughts. Major themes running through this book are mental illness, friendship, love, loss, and the idea of “self”.
On opening this book, I was instantly captured by the writing. John Green has an incredible talent for creating stories that are poignant and clever, without ever being dense. This book is littered with thought-provoking ideas and quotes, that really made me take a step back and think about my perception of the world. There are so many beautiful quotes in this book, and so many paragraphs that I had to read and re-read so that I could fully savour and digest the image or message John was creating. His writing has an introspective quality that means that one minute you’re reading the words on the page, and the next you’re thinking about the meaning of the word “love”, or what it means to be “you”.
A major theme of this book is mental health, specifically Aza’s OCD. OCD is something I’m fortunate enough not to be particularly familiar with, but the way John writes about it is so descriptive, relatable, and almost graphic, that just reading about Aza’s thought process really impacted me. In general, I really appreciated how mental illness is represented in this book. John does an excellent job of depicting the ugly, un-romanticized reality of mental illness, questioning the simplified linear narrative from “worse” to “better” that we often see in fiction, whilst providing readers with a glimmer of hope.
“I wanted to tell her that I was getting better because that was supposed to be the narrative of illness: It was a hurdle you jumped over or a battle you won. Illness is a story told in the past tense.”
Another thing I really liked about this book is that the plot feels unique. Lately, I’ve been finding it hard to find a YA book that really excites me and feels different to other books I’ve read. Turtles All The Way Down feels to me like a unique story that stands out amongst others in the genre. It’s not a story about a girl who becomes a detective. It’s not a story about a girl with a mental illness. It’s not a story about falling in love, or about friendship. It’s some of these things, but it’s also something else. It captures the reality of being a teenager, which is that no one of these things happens in isolation. Someone could be having the greatest adventure of their life or they can be falling in love, but that doesn’t mean they can’t also be suffering, or struggling with something else too. Mental illness doesn’t take a break just because something good is happening right now.
I’ve heard people before say that they find John Green’s characters hard to relate to, or that they seem “too grown-up”. Personally, the fact that John Green’s teenage characters aren’t “dumbed-down” is one of my favourite things about his books. He gives teenagers credit for their intelligence, and he never trivialises their problems. It’s also so refreshing to read a book told from the point of view of a mature, relatable, and flawed character. Even the secondary characters in this book take on their own personalities, and feel real. Davis is a complex and interesting character, who I would love to read more about. Daisy, too, shows that she has her own story and problems, outside of Aza’s. And this is one of the amazing things about this book, that these characters help it to feel real.
‘”Actually, the problem is that I can’t lose my mind,’ I said. ‘It’s inescapable.’”
John Green had a lot to live up to, thanks to the success of The Fault in Our Stars. And in my opinion, Turtles All The Way Down absolutely lives up to this high expectation. It’s a completely different book, exploring different themes and characters, and with a different feel. In fact, thematically it feels separate from his previous works, though shares a few of the same common themes and ideas.
Like both Looking For Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars this is a really emotional read. It’s moving and poignant and real, and the final hundred pages hurt my heart. But it’s not just a “sad” book: it’s the kind of book that breaks you a little, and then remakes you again, but maybe not quite the way you were before.
And I think that’s probably the idea.
“The problem with happy endings is that they’re either not really happy, or not really endings, you know? In real life, some things get better and some things get worse. And then eventually you die.”