Published October 10th 2017 by Dutton Books for Young Readers
Author: John Green
Genre: Young Adult/Fiction/Mental Health
Star rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
“At the time I first realized I might be fictional, my weekdays were spent at a publicly funded institution on the north side of Indianapolis called White River High School, where I was required to eat lunch at a particular time – between 12:37 p.m. and 1:14 p.m. – by forces so much larger than myself that I couldn’t even begin to identify them.”
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’m afraid I can’t start this review any other way than by giving a little bit of insight into my thoughts on John’s previous books. I’ve never reviewed his books before (mostly because I read them before I started reviewing) so this is my first time putting my thoughts out there about him.
When I was in college, The Fault in Our Stars came out. I was only just getting into reading at this point, and everyone was talking about it, and it was all over Tumblr (back in those days) so that meant it was worth finding a copy. What happened was this: I ended up buying all of his books, and reading the lot. I started with TFIOS and went from there.
My verdict? Ehhhhh. I wasn’t a fan of TFIOS, I didn’t cry, it didn’t really move me. I liked the fact that there was a fictional author and book in it though, that I did like. It was probably the only bit I liked. Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns were okay, but not life-changing. I’m the John Green reader who felt meh about his books until I got round to reading An Abundance of Katherines. Now, THAT was a book. It inspired me to start writing my own YA stories, and I am indebted to its very existence. And Will Grayson, Will Grayson I loved because it was done with David Levithan, who is one of my all-time favourite authors, and I love everything he writes.
So, when I heard about Turtles All the Way Down, I was wary. It could have gone one of two ways: It would be another miss like TFIOS or it could be redeeming. I avoided finding anything out about the plot, until somewhere along the line I heard it dealt with mental health. That changed everything, and I borrowed the book from the library.
“…your life is a story is a story told about you, not one that you tell.”
I can reveal the book has restored by faith in John Green, and was indeed redeeming. I didn’t expect it to be as good as it is, and I read it in only a few sittings. Aza (cool name) is our main character, and the portrayal of her mental health is continuous and accurate. By that I mean, her mental health problems don’t stop just because there’s a plot happening. It’s easy for a writer to get carried away in the plot, and forget the problems their character has, but this book brings it to the very forefront of the story, and it stays there.
Aza has an obsessive condition, which she describes as a spiral in her head, or ‘thought spiral’. She gets invasive thoughts that she can’t get rid of without digging her thumbnail into her middle finger to test that she is real. She focuses on bacteria, and the inner workings of her body and digestive system. Her belief that she is fictional stems from the fact that she thinks her body is controlling her, she’s just bacteria, rather than an individual, intelligent human being. It means she’s in her head a lot, and it means we’re in her head a lot.
The way this ‘spiral’ and her intrusive thoughts are portrayed is intense at times, and could be triggering to anyone who suffers with this in their life, so if you do, I’d read with caution, because it does play a huge part in the book. I could relate on a low-level. I get intrusive thoughts that can only be gotten rid of by doing a ritualistic act, or counteracting the thought with another thought immediately, or seeing something that my brain tells me to see, and it’s only if I see that thing, or that thing happens that my brain will tell me everything is okay.
In terms of the digging fingers into the skin, I do variations of this, and it’s evident on my forefinger and middle finger, but not to the same extent as Aza’s. So, I could understand her on some level, but not with the same intensity. But John has done a brilliant job of representing her mental health, unmatched by any other book I’ve read.
“You’re the narrator, the protagonist, and the sidekick. You’re the storyteller and the story told. You are somebody’s something, but you are also your you.”
Okay, so THE PLOT ITSELF. Aza and her best friend Daisy find out that a billionaire, Russel Davis Pickett, has gone missing (possibly on the run) and there’s a $100,000 reward for information leading to his whereabouts and eventual discovery. Aza used to be childhood friends with the man’s son, who is his father’s junior by name, but known as Davis. Daisy talks Aza into getting back in contact with Davis, in the hopes that they’ll be able to find out information and reap the cash reward.
I was a bit dubious about this plot to begin with, but it soon grew on me. Davis and Aza do connect, but my favourite thing about them is their honesty. Davis is from a billionaire family. Both he and Aza have one living parent (Davis’ mum died, and Aza’s dad died) so they both know how it feels to lose a parent. Except now Davis is as good as an orphan, and needs to take care of his little brother.
So Davis knows he is rich, and he knows that Aza may have only got in contact because of the reward. But come on, this is Aza, and she’s more concerned with her spiraling thoughts and whether or not she’s changed the band-aid on her middle finger. She could only be honest with him, and super genuine about who she is, because she knows she cant help it. For this, she is one of the best characters I’ve ever encountered. And I’m so glad that Davis could understand that, but also that he was honest too.
“People always talk like there’s a bright line between imagination and memory, but there isn’t, at least not for me. I remember what I’ve imagined and imagine what I remember.”
I feel like, where TFIOS played with plot elements that are supposed to be upsetting and heartbreaking and all that, this one focused more on the realistic fundamentals of a situation without getting all soppy and emotional. The plot was so much better for it. And the ending isn’t a happy, tied-up-with-a-bow ending either, again it’s realistic but it’s hopeful. It’s the ideal ending for a book like this, and John Green has done good.
He also acknowledges the heavy role mental health plays in the book by including a message at the back, along with support links and phone numbers that people can call if they were affected by the book. This is super important, and however you feel about John Green, you should read this book, because it’s simply brilliant and redeems all my previous feelings about him and his books.
Oh, and I began the book wondering how on earth the title was going to be relevant. But having read the whole thing, the title is just perfect. Perfect in a silly and genius way.
Link to the book on Goodreads: Turtles All the Way Down