This review contains very mild spoilers for the sake of discussing multiple aspects of the story.
Title: Turtles All the Way Down
Author: John Green
Genre: YA, Realistic Fiction
Synopsis: 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.
In his long-awaited return, John Green, the acclaimed, award-winning author of Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, shares Aza’s story with shattering, unflinching clarity in this brilliant novel of love, resilience, and the power of lifelong friendship.
I’ve reached an age where young adult fiction has taken a back seat on my reading list. I approach YA with trepidation, feeling as though each new release is met with too much hype and ultimately ends in disappointment I keep reminding myself there are gems out there, that the genre is not dead for me, and although I seem to read nothing but recycled ideas, there are those YA novels that bring something new and compelling to the genre. John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down did just that—with a story that held me close from the first page to its last.
“It’s getting sucked into a whirlpool that shrinks and shrinks and shrinks your world until you’re just spinning without moving, stuck inside a prison cell that is exactly the size of you, until eventually you realize that you’re not actually in a prison cell. You are the prison cell.”
Turtles All the Way Down is about lifelong friendship, an unexpected reunion, Star Wars fan fiction, and a lizard that is actually a dinosaur. But at its heart is Aza Holmes, a young woman navigating her life within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts. Her anxiety is an unrelenting problem that resonates with genuineness; we see her struggle in every day situations at school, with her friends, and with herself. Unlike many other young adult novels that tackle the theme of mental illness, Turtles All the Way Down does not aim to give you a perfect ending. Mental illness is ugly, sad, and frustrating. Aza’s obsessive compulsions don’t let up—even at the end of the novel, she is not “cured”—but the situation is not hopeless. John Green gives us the story of someone who learns to live with her problems, to work with what she has in order to be a whole, loved, wonderful person. Aza’s persistent thought spirals are written in an achingly authentic voice, and it’s no wonder—John Green has lived it himself.
As a young adult, I was a fan of Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars. They have their faults (like any book I clung to in grade school) but I loved them dearly. This novel, however, exceeded all expectations. John Green’s writing had matured during his six year hiatus, and comes across as equal parts dark, hilarious, and philosophical. The dialogue is amazing, and I found myself outright chortling whenever Daisy, who’s a force to be reckoned with, said anything at all. Aza’s effervescent best friend was one of my favorite parts of the book, from her Rey/Chewbacca fan fiction to her inspiring directness. I found the tension that grows between the two friends relatable and realistic. Mental illness is a trial for not only the person afflicted, but those closest to them.
“I would always be like this, always have this within me. There was no beating it. I would never slay the dragon, because the dragon was also me. My self and the disease were knotted together for life.”
Where some novels fail to understand how young adults incorporate technology and the internet into their everyday lives, this one excels. John Green does not shy away from using technology in his prose, including everything from texting to Facebook stalking to blog entries. There is never instance of a character conveniently not thinking to reach for their phone when the situation calls for it. In fact, we see Daisy and Aza use their phones to aid in their make-shift investigation. Aza also uses her phone to feed her compulsive thoughts—by regularly looking up cases of those who have suffered from the bacteria Clostridium difficile, or C. diff for short. I applaud Green for not shying away from a realistic portrayal of technology in the hands of the modern teenager. It was seamlessly woven into each scene and added an overall depth to the story.
Though the premise is set to make this a story about the “mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett,” Turtles All the Way Down is, at its core, a character-driven novel. After devouring this story in one blurry, late-night binge session, I can say with confidence that the integrity of YA is alive and well. All I have to say now is I’m beyond eager to see what Green has in store for us next.
Photo credit – Penguin Random House LLC