Turtles All The Way Down by John Green: Review
There is a question readers ask whenever they pick up a John Green novel, especially after The Fault In Our Stars: How emotionally destroyed am I going to be by the time I finish this book?
That totally depends on the reader, but if you pick up John Green’s new novel Turtles All The Way Down, his first new book in 6 years, you should know this: John Green is disenchanted with happy endings.
“The problem with happy endings is that they’re either not really happy, or not really endings, you know?” writes Green in Turtles. “In real life, some things get better and some things get worse. And then you die.”
Well damn. Okay.
Turtles All the Way Down follows Aza, a 16-year-old would-be detective living in Indianapolis. On the surface, the book has all of the pieces we’ve come to know and love from a John Green novel: an impossible task (track down a missing billionaire to win a $100k reward), a quirky best friend (Daisy, a Star Wars fanatic who writes Rey-Chewbacca fan fiction because Chewbacca is a person goddammit), a charming love interest (Davis Pickett, the missing billionaire’s son, who loves stars and poetry), and unbelievably precocious dialogue (at one point a character causally quotes James Joyce’s monolith of a novel Ulysses to another — “O Jamesy let me up out of this”).
These plot points and characters are background for the true journey of ‘Turtles’: What it’s like to live with mental illness.
But rather than giving us the traditional arcs and twists we expect for these characters and storylines, Turtles leaves them suspended and/or unsatisfied. Aza and Daisy’s friendship is severely flawed, we’re never sure what’s going on with Davis (though Davis gets massive brownie points for acknowledging that Jupiter Ascending is a cinematic masterpiece and should be honored as such), and even the book’s central mystery is pursued as an afterthought at best.
Instead, all of these plot points and characters are background for the true journey of Turtles: What it’s like to live with mental illness.
“This is my first attempt to write directly about the kind of mental illness that has affected my life since childhood, so while the story is fictional, it is also quite personal,” said John Green in a press release when he announced the book.
In Turtles, our protagonist Aza suffers from severe anxiety and OCD, and frequently gets trapped in thought spirals (hence the book’s cover design) from which there is seemingly no escape other than Aza’s compulsions. The first compulsion we’re introduced to is: Aza cracks open a callous on her finger tip, drains out the blood, and washes the wound out with hand sanitizer, out of fear that the wound will get an infection and kill Aza. And the obsessive thoughts and compulsions escalate from there, resulting in scenes that are so raw and so viscerally rendered that they can be quite frankly shocking to find in a John Green novel.
“I wanted to give people a look at living with a mind that doesn’t feel like it’s entirely yours,” explained Green at the launch event for Turtles All The Way Down in New York City.
It’s a move that may seem shocking to readers at first, but in a lot of ways Turtles All The Way Down feels like the next logical step in Green’s writing career. Green’s protagonists, throughout all of his books, have always had rich interior lives. It’s one of the things that’s made his novels so relatable, despite criticisms occasionally leveraged against Green that his books feature unbelievably precocious teens embarking on unbelievably quixotic adventures.
But even with their sometimes-larger-than-life plots, John Green novels are filled with quiet moments that tap into the universal feelings that both young and older readers alike experience: navigating friendships, fear of loss, the magic of falling in love.
Those quintessential John Green moments are still featured in Turtles, but now John Green takes those meditations and turns them inward. Aza is not striving to find and love someone else. She’s striving to find and love herself.
It’s a narrative switch that marks tremendous growth and maturity for John Green as a writer. He doesn’t need those giant set pieces anymore (the coastal road trip, the trip to Amsterdam, the dorm revenge pranks) to still carry the book along. Sure, Turtles sets up a capital “P” plot with the search for the missing billionaire, but the way the story quickly benches that search seems to signal: John Green has grown up, and dear reader, so have you.
Even during its most painful moments, there is tenderness that radiates out of ‘Turtles All The Way Down’
That’s not to suggest that this book is only somber and sadness. It’s still a John Green novel, which is to say: Turtles All The Way Down is charming as hell. Daisy lights up every scene that she’s in, most likely at a dinner at Applebees, cursing the existence of Chuck E. Cheese where she works. Meanwhile, Davis, his blog, and his poems are so damn angsty that you can’t help but smile.
And even during its most painful moments, there is tenderness that radiates out of Turtles All The Way Down. The book is filled with quotes like “You are as real as anyone, and your doubts make you more real, not less.” In this way, Turtles delivers a lesson that we so desperately need right now: Yes, it is okay not to be okay.
With Turtles All The Way Down, John Green has crafted a dynamic novel that is deeply honest, sometimes painful, and always thoughtful, delivered with the characteristic charm the author is known for.
John Green, welcome back. We missed you.