A spoiler-free review
Written By: John Green
Original Publication: 10 Oct 2017
Length: 286 Pages
I think that there is a large misconception regarding the core appeal of John Green’s books. It’s been over 12 years since the release of his first novel, Looking for Alaska, an examination of young love and the frailty of life, and having read all Green’s published books, there’s been a notable maturation in his works.
Most of Green’s works include some element of incredible opportunity that most people could not afford: The remote boarding school in Looking for Alaska, the trip to Amsterdam in The Fault in Our Stars, the general lack of parental supervision, and the accessibility to a multi-millionaire’s estate in Turtles All the Way Down. However, one of the accomplishments of Turtles is its examination of privilege and opportunity, something cursory in Green’s other works, if not totally absent.
Turtles All the Way Down is from the perspective of a teenage girl named Aza Holmes. The story follows her and her charming best friend Daisy as they deal with the fringe consequences of a multi-millionaire on the run and a huge reward on his head. The millionaire’s son, Davis, is an old friend of Aza’s with a shared trauma. Through rekindling their relationship, Aza examines her reality as middle-class and as someone who suffers from mental illness.
I’ve always loved The Fault in Our Stars, and I thought Green’s portrayal of the struggles with cancer was realistic and deeply tragic. But the fear of dying due to terminal illness is a bit of a far-removed experience for most readers, and it can come off as melodrama for someone not romantically disposed.
There is no romance in mental illness in Turtles All the Way Down. Aza is the supreme star of the show, and, in my opinion, Green’s best narrator ever. Her problems with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and anxiety are not sugar-coated, they’re troubling and visceral and realistic. They don’t give her super powers. She even bitterly jokes about this, saying how her powers for fixation and observation should make her a great detective and help her solve the case of the missing millionaire. But that’s not how mental illness works, and that’s not how the book works.
I enjoyed this book, mostly for Aza and Daisy, who is a strong and entertaining deuteragonist. The best parts of the book were when they explored Indianapolis together or sat at Applebee’s and talked about Star Wars. Aza, the child of a windowed single mother, and Daisy, who works a part time job to help support her family, draw an interesting socio-economic contrast, one that Aza isn’t aware of. The raw sense of reality this book invokes is so surprising it almost circles back around to being supernatural, but in this novel, it works. There are no crazy parties or revenge schemes or all-expenses paid trips to Europe. The mundanity, the normalcy of this novel is a great achievement.
While there has been obvious evolution in Green’s storytelling, his prose quality has deteriorated a little. The writing is pretty simple, and the metaphors are not well-integrated into the story. Whenever the teenagers start to wax poetic I was taken out of it a little bit. Aza herself has the most realistic voice, interior and exterior, but some of her conversations with her mother and Davis especially were wrought.
My other big gripe with the story is Davis himself, who is pretty cardboard as love interests come. The developing relationship between him and Aza was only interested in how Aza reacted to it, how Aza reacted to kissing, to hand-holding, to having to be physically seen and felt and not just communicated with over the phone like she wanted. Davis’s situation in life, the son of a callous millionaire with money falling out of his ears, is so otherworldly compared to the average lives of Aza and Daisy, and those realms don’t always mesh.
Turtles All the Way Down is a quick, cute read with a strong soul. I think about anyone would enjoy it and lord knows it won’t take you long. Green’s talent for empathy is on display here, and his living in Indianapolis and his experiences with OCD make the book amazingly realistic. Nothing wrong with writing what you know if you do it well.