Turtles All The Way Down ~ Full Review

Tuesday, July 24, 2018


For the past few months, I've been seeing a ton of rave reviews of John Green's latest book, Turtles All The Way Down, but, if I'm honest, I've been putting off picking up my own copy because, having not picked up a John Green book since I was sixteen (which, was a whole five years ago - what?!), I was a little worried I might have outgrown his writing style but, you can only ignore so many great reviews so I finally decided to put my anxieties aside and picked up my copy and, well, it's safe to say that I fell completely in love with this book. Upon closing the last page, my first thought was quite simply, wow but, having had a little time to collect my thoughts on exactly why the book was so great, I thought a review was very much in order so, here are my (many) thoughts on Turtles All The Way Down.

So, without any spoilers, on the surface, Turtles All The Way Down is a novel which follows teenager, Aza Holmes and her best friend Daisy as they attempt to find a missing billionaire in order claim a $100,000 reward, simple right?! However, beneath this relatively superficial mystery, John Green explores Aza's struggles with OCD and anxiety and, as the reader witnesses Aza's mental health in crisis, it is Green's portrayal of Aza's struggles with mental illness that make this such a valuable and interesting book.

Aza's OCD is a constant presence within the book, and Green's decision to place it at the forefront of the plot from the outset makes reading this book a really immersive experience because, while it isn't always the primary issue, its constant presence definitely aided my ability to empathise with Aza's inability to escape the invasive nature of her condition. Because, throughout the book, Aza's OCD can vary from a glaringly obvious problem to a background presence Green creates a consistently authentic portrayal of mental illness which captures the complexity of the experience of mental illness. As opposed to sensationalising Aza's experiences, Turtles All The Way Down is able to present a mental health crisis that also prompts readers to recognise that the experience of mental illness is (often) not a simple trajectory from crisis to recovery and instead involves constant peaks and troughs in which people will be impacted by their illnesses to varying degrees at different times. Throughout the book, Aza describes her struggles with intrusive thoughts as 'thought spirals' that tighten around her and, for me, these spirals really highlight Green's presentation of mental illness as a constant presence that, in times of crisis, can transform from a background presence to a powerfully suffocating one.

While, for me, Aza's OCD is the most interesting part of the novel, I feel like this book avoids the trope of making a character's mental illness the only focal point of the novel. That's not so say that Green doesn't explore the possibility that Aza can get lost within her illness, but by creating a story that centres around Aza's experience of OCD within a wider narrative in which she tries to solve a mystery with her best friend and navigate a romantic relationship, Turtles All The Way Down presents the reality of mental illness which is not separate from the outside world and instead exists within a wider context. In fact, the novel consistently highlights the tension Aza experiences in her inability to simultaneously interact with the outside world and manage the intrusive thoughts of her OCD in a way which really enables readers to appreciate the complexity of navigating the management of a mental illness within the wider context of external society.

As well as exploring Aza's experience of navigating mental illness within a wider context, Green also provides readers with an insight into how Aza's OCD impacts those around her. Green definitely doesn't imply that Aza is responsible for the feelings of those around her, but he certainly highlights the capacity for mental illnesses to impact, not just the sufferer but also those around them and, like his refusal to create a clean cut recovery narrative for Aza, the development of his other characters does not result in the creation of characters that know exactly how to respond to Aza's OCD perfectly, instead as Aza attempts to cope with her condition, those characters around her are consistently learning how to better understand and support Aza in her recovery. In this novel, there are no perfect characters and Green utilises Aza's relationships to highlight the shared experience of mental illness as well as the complexity of both recovery and, for those characters around Aza, supporting recovery in a considerate and beneficial way.

Some, although definitely not all, young adult literature definitely falls into the trope of portraying mental illness in a relatively superficial way so what really stood out to me about Turtles All The Way Down is the depth and intensity of the narrative. Returning again to the description of the 'thought spirals' Aza experiences, Green interweaves Aza's OCD so intricately with the plot that, when she is sucked into an ever-tightening spiral of intrusive thoughts the reader is sucked into that spiral with her, with surprising intensity. Having never dealt with OCD myself, my experience of reading Turtles All The Way Down and gaining insights into both Aza's experiences and thoughts and the reactions of those around her really enabled me to appreciate the enormity of Aza's mental illness. So, while I went into this novel with an understanding of those characters around Aza who struggle and try to understand her OCD but I came out of the novel with an increased knowledge of and empathy for Aza's condition.

In all honesty, my main criticism of this novel is that it just wasn't long enough! While it wasn't a super short novel, I did feel like John Green squeezed a whole lot of really interesting content into just under 300 pages and, with a novel that dealt with such interesting subject matter in such a successful way, I could have quite happily read about Aza, her experiences and recovery for so much longer!

There are probably so many more things I could say about this amazing novel but, for now, I'll finish up by saying - if you haven't read Turtles All The Way Down yet make sure it's the next book you pick up.

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