John Green’s new novel, “Turtles All the Way Down,” is his first book since his bestselling young adult novel “The Fault in Our Stars” hit bookshelves in 2012. We all remember swooning when Hazel "fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once." We all remember crying when Gus "lit up like a Christmas tree." “The Fault in Our Stars” was undoubtedly a phenomenon among young readers, and it put Green on the radar as a YA novelist.
Green has four other books besides these last two. Most of them are known for having tragic circumstances and teenage characters who are exceptionally witty, poetic, literary and romantic. “Turtles All the Way Down” continues this trend.
Green has faced criticism for having “unrealistic” characters — teenagers that can speak eloquently about human nature, the meaning of life, pain and loss.
“I'm tired of adults telling teenagers that they aren't smart, that they can't read critically, that they aren't thoughtful,” he said in an interview with The Guardian after the publication of “The Fault in Our Stars.”
As someone who read “The Fault in Our Stars” and Green's other books during my first year of high school, I was drawn to his characters because they weren’t shallow. They were brilliantly crafted — able to ask important questions, go on adventures and feel things, while still being relatable as teenagers who were concerned about SATs, crushes and social media.
So I’m a little biased because I already love Green, but when I say that “Turtles All the Way Down” is incredibly special, I mean it.
What I find so special about this book is that it is clearly a very personal piece of art for Green, who models aspects of the main character after himself. It’s honest and transparent. When I finished it, I wanted to talk about it; I felt obligated to share it with other people. I also cried my eyes out.
“Turtles All the Way Down” follows a few months in the mind of 16-year-old Aza Holmes, who has severe obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety. Aza and her best friend, Daisy, become moderately involved in a mystery surrounding a local billionaire, Russell Pickett, who disappears the night before he is to be arrested for fraud. As Aza and Daisy investigate, Aza also rekindles her childhood friendship with Pickett’s son, Davis.
Davis is stuck as the son of a dead mother and a runaway billionaire. He struggles with the weight of insecurity, loss and responsibility for his younger brother. And he writes poetry, of course.
Daisy is the fast-talking, beautiful and charismatic best friend of Aza. She writes “Star Wars” fan-fiction and her motto is “break hearts not promises.”
And then there is Aza. Aza’s mental illness is characterized by “thought spirals,” which cause her to get stuck in an uncontrollable whirlpool of thoughts that are scary and invasive. Aza’s main fixation is on the irrational fear that she will contract Clostridium difficile, a bacterial infection. She gets so lost in the spiral, disgusted at her microbial nature and paralyzed with fear that she will die of this infection, that she loses track of whatever is going on in the outside world.
“Supposedly everyone has them — you look out from over a bridge or whatever and it occurs to you out of nowhere that you could just jump. And then if you’re most people, you think, Well, that was a weird thought, and move on with your life. But for some people, the invasive can kind of take over, crowding out all the other thoughts until it’s the only one you’re able to have, the thought you’re perpetually either thinking or distracting yourself from.”
The thought spirals are some of the most gut-wrenching moments of the book. Aza spends pages battling the invasive thoughts, trying her hardest to rationalize her way out of them, usually to no avail. She is forced to pull away from a kiss out of disgust for the bacterial exchange, perpetually maintain a wound in her finger to drain it of any possible infection and spend hours on the Internet convincing herself she’s not dying. It’s hard to read.
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With mental illness often stigmatized or romanticized in the media, this book is an important insight into some of the physical and debilitating manifestations caused by OCD.
As much as the story of “Turtles All the Way Down” is fictional, Aza is also a mirror for Green’s own battle with mental illness. Green has opened up about his own OCD, which is characterized by obsessive thought spirals and the compulsive behaviors required to cope.
“So when I started the book that has become “Turtles All the Way Down,” I wanted to try to find form and expression for this way-down, non-sensorial experience of living inside of thought spirals,” said Green in a YouTube video preceding the release of his new novel.
Overall, I think this book is important in the realm of its portrayal of mental health, because while Aza sometimes lives as a hostage in her own consciousness, she also leads a regular life with friends and a boyfriend and school. She has the potential and the desire for a beautiful, fulfilling life with her mental illness. This story reminds you that your now is not your forever. You never know what is awaiting you in five or 10 years — which I find incredibly refreshing rather than cliché.
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