“I was beginning to learn that your life is a story told about you, not one that you tell.”
“No, it’s not, Holmesy. You pick your endings, and your beginnings. You get the pick the frame, you know? Maybe you don’t choose what’s in the picture, but you decide the frame.”
Turtles All the Way Down is the story of Aza Holmes, a sixteen year old Indianapolis high school student with a crazy best friend and a raging complex of anxiety disorders. Throughout Turtles, Aza vacillates between being defined and driven by her anxiety, OCD, and grief for her departed father and having moments of peace, during which she watches stars and eats Applebees with Davis Pickett, son of an eccentric billionaire who’s gone missing, and her best friend Daisy Ramirez, internet-famous author of Star Wars fanfic. With a focus on Aza but eyes on Davis and Daisy as well, Turtles is ultimately a story of what it means to be resilient, even when everything — your family, your friends, life circumstances, and even your own brain chemistry– are fighting against you.
A John Green Book
I’ll admit. I’m one of those cliché people that loved The Fault in Our Stars (and to be further cliché—that’s the book and most definitely not the movie). I was so into it that I even finished listening to the audiobook on the way to a wedding and arrived a mess—red faced and sobbing before the wedding ever started. I was that girl who googled “An Imperial Affliction” and was disappointed to learn it was not a real book.
I then eagerly read Looking for Alaska and was disappointed and could never get into Paper Towns. My burning love for John Green ignited by TFIOS quickly fizzled and revealed itself as a mere flash-bang rather than an enduring fire. So it was with some hesitation that I even checked out Turtles All the Way Down from the library. And yet, Turtles is the closest I’ve found Green to come back to TFIOS—I’d even go so far as to say that Aza Holmes, in all her flawed glory, feels more authentic than Hazel and Augustus.
With that said, Turtles All the Way Down is still, 100% a John Green book. As Preston Yancey noted on an early episode of the What Should I Read Next podcast, YA should be vibrant and intense—the colors are bright and the feelings are feelings. The dialogue that happens in a John Green book is unlikely to happen anywhere else—it’s snappy and intelligent in ways that normal conversation is occasionally, but not all the time. Because of this, Turtles feels inauthentic in the best way—mental illness and grief aside, this is the world as it should be—the dialogue crackles, the air is crisp, and everything has meaning.
Aza’s Anxiety and OCD
Speaking of mental illness, Green himself apparently has OCD and anxiety so his writing these into the character of Aza feels authentic—an #ownvoices of a different type.
“And we’re such language-based creatures that to some extent we cannot know what we cannot name. And so we assume that it isn’t real. We refer to it with catch-all terms, like crazy or chronic pain, terms that both ostracize and minimize. The term chronic paid captures nothing of the grinding, constant, ceaseless, inescapable hurt. And the term crazy arrives at us with none of the terror and worry you live with.”
Aza’s thought spirals could easily feel overdone and stereotypical but Green pulls them back from this edge. Aza, for all her self-loathing and flaws, remains likeable. She breaks your heart as you watch her hurting, wanting to pull her back from the prison her mind has made for her. (Wanting to pull her away from the damn hand sanitizer.) In my experience working with and being friends with people with mental illness, Turtles All the Way Down felt like an accurate portrayal of these disorders that didn’t stray into sensationalism or stereotype, nor is Aza ultimately defined by her mental illness.
Aza’s love interest in the book was sweet and conveniently rich, making Davis the perfect John Green character. He was wiser and kinder than I remember sixteen year old boys being—though, as an aside—my recent spate of YA novels has me wondering if everyone was really having this much sex in high school and I just didn’t know about it (arguably, likely) or if the feeling that all these YA characters are more grown up than I was at their age is partly a function of the earlier and earlier sexualization of American teenagers.
But I digress. Davis was lovely and just the right amount of wounded and imperfect to be the foil for Aza. The Aza-Davis relationship differed markedly from Hazel-Augustus and, despite his immense wealth, Davis felt like a more well-rounded character than Augustus. (Augustus felt too perfect, except for the part where he was…you know, dying). I appreciated how Green resolved the Aza-Davis relationship—it was believable rather than forced, when the easy temptation (especially in YA) is for the happily-ever-after.
Aza’s best friend Daisy was perhaps one of my favorite characters, though one I remain a bit conflicted about. She had many of the hallmarks of the manic-pixie-dream-girl (hence the conflict), though her character revealed the growth in Aza, not a boy. Daisy was Alaska, but far less wounded, better fleshed-out, and a writer of Chewbacca fanfic. (Her life motto—“Break hearts, not promises.) She was snappy and funny, quirky in the way I wanted to be but certainly never was in high school. Turtles is told from Aza’s viewpoint, so part of the reason Daisy kept the manic-pixie-dream-girl vibe for so long was, frankly, because that’s the role Aza relegated her to. Daisy busts this mold to an extent part of the way through the book, when she chews out Aza for being self-absorbed—so caught in her spirals that she doesn’t see the hardship Daisy has been living with. While I doubt Green would do it, I would love a Daisy novella about this same time period so that we see Daisy as she sees herself. I want more of her.
I’m going to be intentionally vague here so I don’t think there needs to be a spoiler warning. I’m not exhaustively versed in his body of work, but the voice, perspective, and final words are not a choice that I think we’ve seen Green make as readers. I go back and forth on whether I found the way this choice provided closure comforting or if it would have been better to leave the book more open-ended. There are many books that I want to know what happened after the book, though having gotten that to an extent here, maybe we are better off not always knowing. The grass is always Greener….(Sorry. But not really.)
If you find John Green or YA generally to be too much, this isn’t going to be the book for you. Green goes new places with Aza, but his voice and his writing remains true to what has made him the popular author he is. If you can handle the occasional YA and/or want to start a John Green book but don’t want to start with the one everyone talks about where the kids are all dying of cancer, then I absolutely recommend Turtles All the Way Down. The topic is serious but the dialogue makes it feel lighter and a thread of hope for Aza runs through the entire book. I listened on audio and found the voice to be a good match for the story—I may even use an Audible credit to purchase my own copy of the audiobook to re-listen.
Published: October 10, 2017 by Dutton Books (@duttonbooks)
Author: John Green (@johngreenwritesbooks)
Date read: December 23, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ stars