I have been a fan of John Green’s brilliant young adult novels since I first discovered The Fault In Our Stars a few years back. I’ve since read all of his novels, and just love the fast-paced dialogue and quirky characters that remind me so much of my own high school classmates. Even though I’m probably a full decade too old for young adult literature, the themes in these novels can really speak to all ages.
And in that department, John Green’s newest novel does not disappoint. Turtles All The Way Down’s main character is Aza Holmes, a high school student struggling with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. But she doesn’t just have OCD; she also has a wonderful personality, great friends, and a mother who cares for her. She has good days and bad days, just like all of us. She’s complex, and she’s undeniably well written.
Like many (all?) of John Green’s other novels, the plot here is driven by a mystery; Aza and her best friend Daisy are trying to discover the whereabouts of a billionaire who has gone on the run. The billionaire also happens to be the father of Aza’s childhood friend Davis Pinkett. Their search takes them wading through the White River, then into the mega mansion that Davis calls home, and later into the sewers of Indianapolis. At first Aza and Daisy are fueled by the prospect of a monetary reward; later, they continue to search out of dedication to Davis and his little brother, who have been left parentless. Although this mystery aspect of the novel isn’t the most memorable part, it is compelling and the prospect of finding Mr. Pinkett kept me turning pages at a rapid speed (it took me just 3 days to finish this book).
During their investigation, sparks fly between Aza and Davis, which is sweet and lovely until Aza’s invasive thoughts grab hold of her and refuse to let go. This is challenging to read at moments, but I think it’s also a very important story to tell. As sad as I felt for Aza as she struggled to control the compulsive behaviors her invasive thoughts pushed her to do, I also felt a strange happiness that a character like Aza was finally present in popular YA Fiction. See, I have struggled with anxiety on and off throughout my life, and spent most of my teen years reading books about simple characters and their happy endings. I had no idea that many other people struggled the way I did, and that there were resources out there that could help me develop effective strategies and coping mechanisms. I felt alone, and no young person should feel alone like that.
The beauty of Aza’s story isn’t that she gets better at the end. Spoiler alert: she doesn’t. The beauty of it is that she has rough moments (eating hand sanitizer, for instance) and gets the help she needs to make improvements. Aza isn’t just her illness; she’s still able to solve a mystery, she still fights and makes up with her best friend, and she still enjoys eating Applebees burgers. She lives a full life alongside her illness. This idea is tied up beautifully in the ending.
Like, the last few pages of this book, guys…. so wonderful.
I also want to throw in a quick plug for John Green’s portrayal of parents. Too many teen novels barley mention the main character’s parents. It’s as if these kids are independent entities. Teenagers are not independent, though; they may look and act like it, sure, but they’re not. Teenage lives are integrally connected to and controlled by their parents. And John Green always shows this in his novels. Aza’s mom is wonderful and real and loving. She’s present and she knows what’s up, which is pretty cool.
I think this book is a must-read, especially if you or someone you know struggles with mental illness. Although the characters are young, the ideas and themes they communicate are important for everyone to be aware of and sensitive to.