When I started reading Turtles All the Way Down, I was convinced that I would loathe it. The opening line, “at the time I first realized I might be fictional“, coupled with the main character, Aza’s, philosophy that “your life is a story told about you, not one that you tell” proved that this was going to be another John Green novel filled with extremely and unrealistically precocious characters. That was only the first page. She goes on to explain how the human body is made up of microbes, 50% of which don’t belong to you, and she appears to believe that she can feel them “living and breeding and dying” inside of her. It becomes clear that Aza suffers from severe anxiety and OCD, the forefront of this novel, and Turtles All the Way Down is a glimpse into the life of a teenage girl struggling with her invasive thoughts.
Below, Aza attempts to explain her thoughts:
“I don’t know, like, I’ll be at the cafeteria and I’ll start thinking about how, like, there are all these things living inside of me that eat my food for me, and how I sort of am them, in a way—like, I’m not a human person as much as this disgusting, teeming blob of bacteria, and there’s not really any getting myself clean, you know, because the dirtiness goes all the way through me. Like, I can’t find the deep down part of me that’s pure or unsullied or whatever, the part of me where my soul is supposed to be. Which means that I have maybe, like, no more of a soul than the bacteria do.”
Aza describes herself as playing the role of the sidekick, “somebody’s something“, e.g. Daisy’s best friend. It is Daisy, who actually tolerate’s her mental health problems fairly well, who convinces Aza to help her investigate the disappearance of a fugitive billionaire named Russell Pickett. It’s not exactly unselfish of her, as there is a $100,000 reward at stake (which they agree to halve between them) and Aza conveniently used to be friends with Russell Pickett’s son, Davis. Davis and Aza reunite and grow closer throughout the novel in a “tormented soul” kind of way, bonding through their shared confusion of how to separate their identities from their circumstances, and existentialism.
Aza’s thoughts are painfully repetitive and move back and forth like a tide, which makes the novel extremely slow with almost no character development. You read pages and pages of philosophical fillers and then you’re kind of like: did anything just happen? Emily May, from Goodreads, described it perfectly when she said: “for a while there, it felt real to me, and then it just became John Green talking to himself about the universe and the nature of ‘self’“. If it weren’t for the misleading synopsis, which spoke of an epic mystery, I might have been less frustrated with Turtles All the Way Down. You’re halfway into the book and you suddenly realize that you’re not reading a story about a Paper-Towns-kind-of-adventure. Not even a little bit. Turtles All the Way Down is not a story about the search for the missing rich guy. Writers Write said: “The search for Russell was an attempt to create a plot, but it doesn’t really work“, and I agree for the most part. Nothing happens.
On a positive note (and probably the most important note of all), I thought that Turtles All the Way Down was a very effective way of helping people understand mental health problems the best way one could. Aza’s suffering is severe and although the what-ifs made me want to shake her by the shoulders and tell her to stop thinking, this is what a person with mental health problems has to deal with every day. They can’t stop and at the same time, they are painfully aware of the fact that people do get frustrated with them. At one point in the novel, Daisy describes Aza as selfish. Aza knows that she is not being a good friend, but she feels helpless and the spiral gets tighter the longer she’s in it. I think that some readers are supposed to get irritated with Aza- that’s what makes her story real, most people just don’t get it. If this was John Green’s goal, he did an excellent job at achieving it. At one point, I realized that I could relate to Aza in a small way, even her inescapable thoughts and physical responses. When Aza explains how she sits at the table and watches everyone socialize and she laughs when the time is right, but she’s ultimately a spectator and she can’t not be that girl- that was one of the most relatable parts because that is how I feel all the time. I think that everyone could relate to her in their own unique way.
Overall, I don’t hate this novel (or John Green as an author, I actually think he does an admirable job of communicating with young people), but I don’t necessarily love it. If I had to rate it, I’d give it a three out of five. The plot was there for the first few chapters and then it kind of just disappeared entirely. I find many of John Green’s characters unlikeable (e.g. Margo Roth Spiegelman) and a bit far-fetched. Some of the metaphors and philosophical statements are not used for emotional impact, but feel rather forced and only every now and then did I come across a statement that really hit me. Having said that, after reading this novel I had a deeper understanding of what it is like to live with severe mental health problems, and that is something that I must give John Green credit for. Matt Haig from The Guardian said: “where the author is good, he is very, very good“, which is spot on.