Young adult author John Green is notorious for his “sad teen” books. Although many of his novels are critically acclaimed, the storylines have become a cliche of their own. Each book seems to follow the same formula: a “plain” character meets a “mysterious” one, then goes on a long drawn-out emotional journey inspired by them. Insert purportedly deep, but meaningless quotes as needed.
The formula works. Green is a prominent name among young adult authors. Two of his novels, Paper Towns and The Fault in Our Stars have their own film adaptations. However, the departure from this formula is exactly what makes his new novel, Turtles All the Way Down, so appealing. It is refreshing to read about not what Green believes is “deep” and “meaningful” to teens, but a story that is so because it comes out of an honest representation of his own struggles.
The protagonist is a 16-year-old girl named Aza, who is afflicted with multiple anxiety disorders. In Aza, Green incorporates his experiences with extreme OCD, resulting in a character who is so distressed about everything, I felt distressed myself.
While Aza goes to school and lives a “normal life,” she also has an irrational, all-encompassing fear of deadly bacteria, punctures a wound on the side of her finger daily so it doesn’t heal, and at her worst, drinks hand sanitizer.
The plot itself is a mystery and absolutely ridiculous. A rich businessman disappears after facing jail time, Aza happens to be old friends with his son, she and her Star Wars-fanfiction-writing friend investigate his disappearance themselves (after conveniently finding a clue the police missed, of course) hoping to win a $100,000 reward.
But Aza is so self-absorbed, so stuck in her “tightening gyre” of thoughts, that she can barely pay attention to anything else. Her best friend dyes her hair; she doesn’t notice. She goes on a date with the aforementioned son, Davis, and barely talks, spending the whole evening in her own head.
As the book progresses, Aza’s behavior becomes even more crazed. The “mystery” is all but forgotten.
It only becomes solved when Aza puts someone else first for a change. The point in Turtles, though, is that Aza doesn’t always have a say in when she can do that. Her mental prison isn’t one she can escape at will.
Turtles All the Way Down didn’t have a great storyline. The characters aren’t exactly relatable–at one point, Aza is just given $100,000 by Davis. Yet it is honest in its characterization of Aza and the way her mental illness affects every part of her life.
The novel describes the reality of living with mental illness. It isn’t something to be romanticized, it’s not some kind of superhuman ability, and it can’t just go away. In conveying this, Green’s novel is both effective and moving.