As per usual, I’m a little behind on the John Green hype. I seem to always wait to read his books until after the excitement dies down more. That’s perfectly okay with me, I’ve never been one to be one of the crowd. The publishing of Turtles All the Way Down came after five years of silence following the publish his arguably most popular book, The Fault in Our Stars. What always impresses me about Green’s books is his remarkable ability to write believable ordinary teenagers, particularly the struggles of his teenage characters. I also appreciate that his main characters aren’t untouchable. By that I mean, they’re not perfect, and through their stories realize that they aren’t and they need to change. All of these things make me appreciate John Green as an author. I haven’t read all of his books though, partly because they all seem very emotionally driven. There’s nothing wrong with this necessarily, and I relate a lot to emotionally sensitive characters, but sometimes it can feel a little bit like emotion overload (this coming from an INFJ!).
All of that intro to say, I was very pleasantly surprised by how very not John Green Turtles All the Way Down turned out to be. This book had many of his great qualities as a writer – believable teenage characters, ordinary people dealing with big problems, imperfect protagonists – there was a lot less emotional drive to this book. Even more interestingly, this book was much more protagonist focused. What I mean by this, is while John Green’s books are always simultaneously about a broad situation and the main character’s growth as a person, the broader situation always seems to take more precedence. In Turtles All the Way Down, the opposite was the case. We saw a lot more of Aza’s inner voice and thoughts than I think we ever have with any other John Green character (based off the books of his I have read). As a reader, you get a front row seat to Aza’s struggle with anxiety (and, I believe, OCD) as she attempts to navigate life as a high schooler. And, also, the fugitive billionaire father of a childhood friend is missing and there’s a huge reward for anyone who finds him. This is the smallest part of the story, though. It’s much less about this missing billionaire dude and much more about Aza trying to function with anxiety and OCD while maintaining friendships, a new relationship, and get through high school.
I believe that Turtles All the Way Down is so unusual and unique because we’re getting a small glimpse into John Green’s world. I picked up very quickly that Aza was dealing with more than just the diagnosed anxiety. Her compulsions and obsessions are huge markers for OCD, and I found myself noting those markers each time they came up. Her struggle was represented in an extremely personal way, which led me to the conclusion (confirmed by one of his answers to a question in a Reddit AMA) that Turtles All the Way Down is slightly autobiographical. This is why it’s not a typical John Green novel. It was never meant to be. When you are writing about yourself, the narrative changes radically, and that is precisely what happened with Turtles All the Way Down did.
If this revelation is nothing new and was something he overtly said about Turtles All the Way Down when it was published, then I totally missed it before reading the book. But I loved figuring that out along the way. His portrayal of Aza’s struggles is so real and educational. I definitely recommend for anyone who has a friend struggling with their mental health, especially with anxiety and OCD.
Turtles All the Way Down by John Green gets 4/5 stars.