Book Review: Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
“Anybody can look at you. It’s quite rare to find someone who sees the same world you see.”
Turtles All the Way Down was my first YA novel in almost a year, and it totally was worth the drought. It completely delivers. I have read almost all of John Green’s novels, with the exception of Paper Towns. As much buzz as this book got last year, I just never got around to it even though I got a lovely signed copy for Christmas (thanks Mom!). I decided I wanted to read it for my unread shelf project, so I picked it up last week. It was totally different than any other John Green novel I can remember, but it still had so many great characteristics of his previous works. Aza Holmes is sixteen years old and suffers from crippling anxiety. She is terrified of contracting C.diff. and is constantly and compulsively picking at a wound on her finger and applying bandages to it. But she is also a normal teenage girl concerned about dating, friends, and college. When she and her best friend Daisy overhear there is a $100,000 reward for any information about Indianapolis billionaire Russell Pickett, they decide to look into his disappearance. Pickett left behind his two teenage sons, Davis and Noah. Aza and Pickett’s oldest son Davis were friends when they were younger, having met at a camp for children who had a parent die. They haven’t seen each other in years, but both are happy to be reconnected. Davis is excited to see Aza, and Aza enjoys catching up with Davis. But both of them are really struggling: Aza with her worsening anxiety and Davis with his dad’s disappearance and Noah’s behavior.
It probably comes as no surprise that I really liked Davis. I could be a little biased because my maiden name is Davis, but I loved this sweet boy who was just trying to take care of his brother, but was really struggling on his own. I also loved his blog that Aza successfully internet stalked. He really liked Aza, but he did not understand her anxiety and was not in place to be in a relationship himself with everything he had going on.
There were so many different cultural references in the book, but somehow it didn’t feel overwhelming. I have never seen the Star Wars movies, with the exception of 20 minutes of one of the more recent ones that is always on FX. But I really liked that Daisy was a Star Wars fanfiction writer, and a super popular one at that. It felt on brand for Daisy, but also very telling of teenagers now. She wrote most of her fanfiction on her phone, while Aza is constantly looking up medical stories and studies on her phone when she is deep in her anxious thoughts. Even though all of the teenagers were very active on their phones and laptops, they all were able to take a step back and do normal kid things. So that has to give us hope, right?
There were some bonkers elements to this book. Russell Pickett’s wealth was outrageous; he employed a full-time zoologist whose sole job was to study a tuatara, and all of the money from his estate would go to the tuatara, and not his sons. That was super bizarre, but there is always at least one super unbelievable plot point in a John Green novel. Even though there were some unbelievable tidbits, I really enjoyed this book. Aza as a character was fascinating, and I so appreciate John Green’s ability to make Aza such a compelling and multi-dimensional protagonist.
What I loved most about this novel is that so much of the book is in Aza’s head. I don’t suffer from anxiety, but I am close with several people who do, though no one at Aza's level. Aza's therapist Dr. Singh refers to her obsessive thoughts as invasives. And I think that is such an appropriate term because for non-anxiety sufferers, you understand a little about how invasive these thoughts can be. Aza tells Davis at one point that her thoughts spiral out of control. One of my favorite lines from the book about Aza's spirals is, "Spirals grow infinitely small the farther you follow them inward, but they also grow infinitely large the farther you follow them out." I love how beautiful that is. It reminds Aza that things can get better and even though she struggles, she can pull herself back from these thoughts.
I learned so much from this book. John Green himself suffers from anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, and he has said that Turtles All the Way Down is his most personal book to date. I think the book is all the better for it. This is one of the few books I have read where the reader sees that level of anxiety from the protagonist’s brain; Beard in Mind by Penny Reid is the other one. I am sure there are other great books out there that address similar issues, but these are the two that I have connected with. Given how popular John Green is, he really elevated mental illness and health as themes and can make these types of stories more mainstream and widely accepted.
I am grateful for authors who write things that are personally difficult and resonate with so many. I learned so much about anxiety and will make more of an effort in the future to seek out books that are out of my wheelhouse. I give Turtles All the Way Down 4.5 stars.
What are some of your favorite YA novels?