Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
Publisher: Dutton Books, 2019
Genre: YA Fiction
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Turtles All the Way Down tells the story of Aza “Holmsey” Holmes, a high schooler attempting to solve a mystery while also struggling to co-exist with her mental illness. When fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett goes missing and a hefty reward is offered for information leading to his whereabouts, Aza’s best friend, Daisy, convinces her to investigate. Reuniting with her childhood friend (and Pickett’s son), Davis, in hopes of learning more about the case, Aza soon finds herself enamored with this kindred spirit and a relationship begins to develop.
Amidst the romance and mystery, however, Aza spends a great deal of her time trapped within her own mind. Suffering from severe OCD and anxiety, she lives with a constant fear that she will contract a fatal disease and be overrun by the bacterial colonies breeding beneath her skin. These intrusive thoughts regularly impede her daily life as she grapples with “thought spirals,” in addition to navigating the treacherous waters of friendship, romance, and sleuthing.
Fans of John Green’s other works will feel right at home within the pages of this book, which contains many characters and philosophies that have become classic Green staples. Turtles All the Way Down echoes The Fault in Our Stars in terms of the instant love connection between Davis and Aza, as well as the exploration of the meaning of life through untimely deaths. It is worth mentioning, however, that this is one of Green’s heavier works, as the reader spends the majority of the novel subjected to the intrusive thoughts of the protagonist. Aza spends a large portion of the novel wrestling with irrational fears and trying (and often failing) to fight her compulsions. Despite the discomfort experienced in parts of the novel, this only makes the story being told all the more important, as it provides a glimpse into the often-ignored realities of mental illness. Suffering from OCD himself, Green has remarked that this book is very personal to both himself and his experiences.
One of the most poignant aspects of this novel lies in the way Green alludes to deep, universal themes without explaining them too much. A theme explored both throughout the book and throughout Green’s writing is realizing and accepting that some things aren’t meant to be fully understood. Readers can take as much away from this book as they wish, at both a surface level and with deeper analysis of symbols and motifs.
At its core, Turtles All the Way Down sends a hopeful message, while still managing to stay true to the narrative of mental illness. Despite the sometimes darker aspects of the novel as Aza sometimes fails to grapple with her own mind, she continues to ceaselessly press on and chooses to believe that we have more control over our lives than we might believe. Turtles All the Way Down is the perfect read for those who wonder about our smallness, our vastness, and the integration of our seemingly-irreconcilable selves. The underlying sense of hope serves to soothe anxious minds and remind us that “your now is not your forever.”