Book Review: Turtles All the Way Down

Obviously, this post will be chock full of spoilers, so don’t read if you haven’t yet delved into the endless depths of John Green’s newest fiction bestseller, Turtles All the Way Down.

Let me start with the things I did not like, because they’re few and far between. Actually, there’s only one thing I can think of that fell flat, and that’s the summary.

It’s not a good one. Let me show you:

“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. “

Nothing seems particularly wrong with that, right? But here’s the thing: I went into this book expecting detective work and mystery-solving sprinkled with John Green’s usual amazing characters who banter and develop and make me believe in them, but it was more the other way around–amazing characters who banter and develop sprinkled with a light mystery that really, in the end, didn’t have a huge impact on the outcome.

This isn’t necessarily bad, because I still loved the book. I just wished the summary had put more stock on Aza’s character and her relationship with the people around her, because that’s more what Turtles All the Way Down is about, and the summary only lightly touched on that without even mentioning the main points of her character.

So, what is this book about, then? It’s about a girl, Aza Holmes, who has anxiety and obsessive compulsive issues. It’s about how she hates herself, thinks herself worthless, and how she doesn’t magically Get Better when she falls for a boy, because that’s not how the world works. It’s about how Aza realizes she’s not in the right place for a relationship and breaks up with The Boy, because it’s better for both of them that way. It’s about how she comes to trust her doctors and therapists and take the medicine she was given, to slowly level herself out–not “fix” her, but help her. And of course, you can’t put that in a summary, because there are a ton of spoilers, but I couldn’t help realizing halfway through my reading this book that the mystery I’d been promised was nowhere to be found.

Within the first hundred pages or so (don’t quote me on that; it’s an approximation), Aza and her best friend, Daisy, are handed the one hundred thousand dollar reward by Davis, the son of the missing billionaire who’s wanted. Davis likes Aza, and he wants to be sure that the reason she’s sticking around isn’t just for the reward; he’s rich, so he just gives her the money, and though Aza still continues to look into the mystery every so often, the book after that point becomes more focused on Aza and Davis’s relationship, as well as her friendship with Daisy and Mychal, and the ever-tightening spiral of her obsessive thoughts.

Of the whole book–the “mystery”, the reward, Daisy, the not-relationship between our dear MC and Davis–what shook me the most was Aza’s anxiety. It was like a gratuitous picture of myself, though my anxiety is less “obsessive compulsive” than hers.

Where Aza’s thoughts spiral in and in on themselves, mine are like an unraveling thread, slowly coming apart and branching off into so many different directions I have no idea where I started or how to get back. I don’t ritualistically dig my fingernail into my skin to draw blood and make sure I’m not infected with the infamous C. diff; I don’t have arguments with myself about whether or not ingesting hand sanitizer will kill the possible infection inside me; I don’t dissociate all hours of the day (though I do sometimes, but never for as long as Aza); I don’t dissolve into manic obsessive behavior at the thought of the cut I gave myself getting infected because I forgot to change the band-aid; I don’t panic over microbiota when kissing; and yet, following Aza’s thought process really, truly struck a chord within me.

I may not know exactly how she felt, because I have a different type of anxiety than her, but I understand it. I know how it is to fade out of yourself, to feel like sometimes you have to get roped back into your own body; I know how it is to hate yourself, to want to escape your own skin; I know how it is to think everyone hates you and that you’re worthless. I get it, and I bet many who read this felt the same.

How many times was I moved to tears while reading, when Aza’s narration shifts from first-person to second, because she’s not really herself–she’s outside her body, narrating for someone else, hoping against everything that you’ll understand. How many times did I have to set the book aside and take deep breaths, because I had felt the same way for so long. Only one word fits–innumerable.

When Aza gets in a crash and has to be hospitalized, she freaks out about getting C. diff, since most cases are contracted in a hospital, and proceeds to swallow a bunch of hand sanitzer because her thoughts compelled her to. In the following chapter, she goes back to second-person narration, only pulling herself back when she finally tells her mom “I really need help.” That was one of many times I had to take deep breaths just to hold in tears.

The Mystery Lite within the story (Davis’ missing father who’d fled after accusations of extortion) does get solved in the end, but it’s unsatisfying, just like many of life’s mysteries. It turns out Davis’ father actually died in the sewers not far from his house; he tried to escape through them and then passed away due to exposure. It has been a few weeks (maybe even months) since his disappearance when they finally find him, and only because Aza and Daisy went down to the sewers for a literal underground art show near the book’s end.

Honestly, I’d all but forgotten about the mystery at that point. I was more interested in Aza’s hospital visit, her finally admitting that she really needed help, her reconciliation with Daisy after their in-car fight that led to the accident, Aza’s break-up with Davis, Daisy’s not-dating-but-not-just-friends situation with Mychal, and Aza’s little epilogue that told how she grew up and eventually found love and had children and never forgot Davis.

And that’s the thing about John Green’s books–they’re real, they always are. The main character isn’t miraculously cured nor do they get their problems solved by Love™, the two best friends fight and hate and make up, and relationships are shown to be the messy, multi-facted thing they are, just like the people who have them.

When I finished Turtles All the Way Down, I felt a weird mix of emotions well up inside me. On the one hand, I loved all the characters–even Aza, despite her hatred of herself and the way she felt constantly trapped within her body, her mind. On the other hand, I was still close to tears and my breathing was a bit erratic when I read the final page. Aza’s anxiety did more than strike a chord with me–it reminded me of how bad I used to be. That’s what good books do, though. They remind you of your past, they make you think about life.

There’s a quote that describes this perfectly. Though I can’t remember it verbatim, I can give you a general rundown. The quotee stated that a play (or a book, in this case) is good when you leave the theater talking about the play, but it’s great when you leave the theater talking about life.

So it is with great books like this one.

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