“Turtles All the Way Down” is the latest book from author John Green following his smash hit success, “The Fault in our Stars.”
This is a book that the world desperately needed, and although a lot of readers may have expected this novel to be overrated, focused on teenagers falling in love and talking in absurdly metaphorical language (which yes, there is plenty of), that cannot be farther from the truth.
“Turtles” is sentimental, clichéd in some areas, but it reveals a message and discusses a topic that is a part of cultural conversation in day-to-day life. The story is narrated by Aza “Holmsey” Holmes, a troubled 16-year old living in Indianapolis who lives with obsessive compulsive disorder. The book follows Aza and her best friend, Daisy, on their search to find missing fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett.
Together, they navigate through an almost impossible search while Aza tries to live with the ever tightening and self-destructive spiral of her own thoughts. The novel details all of her experiences as she navigates through friendships, romance and mental health. At its base, this is a detective story about a detective whose brain is unhelpful, with the plot being continuously interrupted by Aza’s inability to live in the world in a way that she wants to.
“Turtles” is surprising and moving, and although Aza’s character is often self-absorbed and she lives with an illness that dominates her life, she is easy to identify with. Like most high school students, she is simply trying her hardest to live an ordinary life; she tries her best to be a good daughter, a good student, and a good friend all the while attempting to become a better self.
The novel is similar to Green’s other novels in that it is “sad teen fiction,” but it does not follow the typical curves and twists that readers would expect given the storyline. In fact, what makes “Turtles” so surprising is that it does not hide how deeply flawed the characters actually are: Daisy and Ava’s friendship is severely imperfect with Daisy calling Ava “exhausting” and “like mustard.”
The friendship at times is unsupportive, but there is also an authenticity to it that will make readers appreciative. Green does not try to hide that Daisy and Ava’s relationship isn’t perfect because no relationship ever is. Green does not romanticize her mental illness, he shows how intrusive and pressing it is on her social and romantic relationships.
Green has talked extensively in press interviews about his own experiences with OCD and anxiety, and his raw emotion and relatability to the topic can be seen through Aza. Her mind is obsessive, scared, and altogether consuming, and readers will find themselves transported into the suffocating nature of her head with no way out. Readers are trapped with her as she spirals out of control and later tries to pick herself back up again. While reading this, audiences will get an idea of what mental illness actually consists of: It is mind-numbing and tiring.
The message that this book reveals is spectacular; however, the storyline is not perfect. The plot is a little hard to believe, and Aza can often be a repetitive narrator. The metaphor of her recurring intrusive thoughts as a spiral seems as if it is brought up at least two times per chapter. It is as if Green really wants readers to understand it and appreciate it, but after the first time around, the metaphor is clearly understood and there is no reason for it to be stated over and over again.
The novel also dwells in cliché. For example, all the characters have very stereotypical character traits. There is the troubled teen narrator, the overly enthusiastic best friend, the helicopter mom, adults who just don’t understand what is going on, and a scene where the love interest is pointing out constellations to said troubled teen narrator on a star gazing date. And in these cliché moments, there are some sappy parts that will make readers roll their eyes, but all of this is overcome by the fact that Green is a very good writer and these little bumps can easily be overlooked.
Green’s novel is so important because it actually talks about mental illness, and it does this by not using it as a stigma or as a punchline to a joke. Real people live their lives exactly as Aza does, and “Turtles” can be used as a means to starting a conversation about what it feels like to not be in control of your train of thought. It will resonate with, and also comfort, young minds everywhere that there are people out there with similar experiences, and that no one is ever alone in this struggle.
Green has crafted a powerful novel that is deeply honest, although sometimes painful in its truth, but it delivers a lesson that people need to hear: it is okay to not be okay.