Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
Sixteen-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together, they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Pickett’s son, Davis.
Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts.
It's been a long time since I stayed up all night reading a John Green novel, but that's what I've just done. I'm not quite sure if it's because of Turtles All the Way Down itself or just a sense of nostalgia for the days when John Green's novels were practically my Gospel.
It's been five years since there was a new John Green novel to read, and for me it was both pleasant and strange to be reading his writing for the first time again. I was afraid that I would have outgrown his books, or that this one wouldn't live up to the rest, and I had to try very hard to start Turtles All the Way Down without any expectations or presumptions.
This tactic might be the only way to approach Turtles All the Way Down in some ways, because the novel is both quintessentially John Green and completely different from his other writing. I won't explain exactly how simply because it would take a long time and a lot of words, and because I think respect for the author demands that each new work be allowed to live on its own.
Turtles All the Way Down is extremely existential - Aza, the main character, is plagued by thoughts of her "self" and what that means, whether or not a true "self" really exists, and often gets stuck in spirals of these and other intrusive thoughts. The spirals mean that she tends to repeat herself a lot, illustrating the invasive, cyclic nature of disordered thought unflinchingly and realistically, though sometimes frustratingly as well.
For people who live with these types of thought spirals, it's a familiar motif - living like you're walking through underbrush that might be hiding bear traps or spear-laden pits - and it's easy to empathize with Aza's character. For those whose thoughts are not disordered, it might be harder to empathize with Aza (even if they can sympathize), and without this implicit understanding the book and its style of narration might become frustrating and tiresome.
This is where I think Green's genius has struck, since these are precisely the emotions that people often feel when dealing with mentally ill people in real life. But even as it inspires these emotions, Turtles All the Way Down offers people unfamiliar with disordered thought a window into what it is like inside the mind of someone like Aza. And for people who can identify with Aza, it provides a different angle, a different point of view, that allows readers to potentially examine and understand themselves by proxy of her.
I will stop myself from writing a dissertation here, since that's what it would take to fully unpack Turtles All the Way Down and its relationship to non-fictional people and mental illness, but suffice it to say that Green's literary genius is alive and well. Good fiction reveals something to us about ourselves, and Turtles All the Way Down certainly accomplishes that. It may not be the most fun book you ever read, but it may well be one of the most important.
Once Upon a Time...
As a longtime lover of stories and a believer in the power and magic of books, I've spent my life seeking out the best reads. This blog is dedicated to reviewing the books I read - good, bad, or magnificent - to help other readers find their next favorite books.