Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
Genres: Young Adult, Fiction
Maturity Level: 5
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Sixteen-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together, they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Pickett’s son, Davis.
Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts.
I have always felt that it’s important to differentiate between something’s quality and how much you personally liked it, but with Turtles All the Way Down that distinction is even more necessary than usual.
Not everyone will like this book.
John Green’s books just aren’t for everyone. They’re intensely philosophical, to the point that I would call them philosophy-driven rather than character- or plot-driven. They aren’t realistic. I’ve read a lot of complaints that they’ve gotten less realistic over time, but really I think we’ve just NOTICED how unreal his characters and situations are. They’re emotional and sometimes difficult to read, especially when his characters grapple with things that are close to us, like death or mental illness.
So if you’re looking for a realistic depiction of teenagers and a plot that is reasonable and with a point, look somewhere else.
If you’re looking for a book exploring how mental illness makes a person feel, how you can know you are real, and has a loose plot that exists solely to give this book some semblance of a story arc, look no farther!
As far as for me personally, I enjoyed this book about as much as I liked Paper Towns, which had so far been my favorite John Green book. And a lot of the things I didn’t like were more about me than the book.
Okay. Likes. I liked (appreciated might be a better word) what felt like a completely accurate depiction of living with OCD and acute anxiety. I loved that the book ended on a hopeful note for Aza, that while her mental health problems might never go away, she can live with them. I liked that the romance wasn’t one of those sweeping TRUE LOVE kind of things, but rather a simple glimpse at how confusing relationships can be. And, unpopular opinion coming here, I rather liked the goofy over-the-top plot of searching for the missing billionaire father. It was quirky and unique, and I bought it a lot more than some of John’s other plots. (Girl runs away and leaves a mysterious breadcrumb trail that NOBODY can ever figure out until someone does, for example.)
Dislikes. Aza was too much like John. Again, this is more about me, because as a long-time viewer of John’s vlogs I’ve personally heard John talk about a lot of the things in the book before. Microbiomes, for example, have been featured more than once. And Aza’s obsessive internet searching for diseases is something I know for a fact John does himself. For this reason I actually didn’t read Aza as a girl. I was a good 50 pages in when I re-read the synopsis, saw the word daughter, and thought maybe it was a typo. I thought maybe John was going LGBTQ finally. Oops.
I didn’t like Daisy. She bugged me, she never stopped talking, and for all her complaining about Aza being self-centered she sure made no effort to understand what was going on in Aza’s mind. I was frustrated by Aza’s mom. Her lack of effort in making sure her daughter’s mental health was improving reminded my so strongly of my own mother, and it was infuriating. I expect I was supposed to feel this way.
But mostly I was uncomfortable with reading Aza’s descent into her thought spirals. Though nothing so intense, I also struggle with being out of control of my thoughts. When John introduced the concept of a thought-spiral in a vlogbrothers video some time ago, it was like a light bulb went off in my head. I understood myself so much better, and was able to express what I was going through to my husband more accurately. Because of all this, I was able to relate and empathize a little too strongly with Aza, and a lot of her hopeless, trapped feelings bled into me a little. I’ve been struggling to stay positive anyway, and this really didn’t help. It made me feel scared. Really really scared.
As to all the philosophizing, I’m basically indifferent. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t ever heard John say before, but it didn’t detract from the overall book for me. I thought he did a good job keeping it succinct and balancing it with Star Wars fanfiction. (For the record, I don’t think Rey/Chewie is bestiality, but I wouldn’t want to read it either. Awkward.)
You know yourself best. If you haven’t liked John Green books in the past, you won’t like this one. If you love them all, you’ll probably love this one too. My recommendation to those who have never read a John Green book before and aren’t sure what to make of all the mixed reviews: Give it a try. Even if you don’t like it, you’ll probably come out the other side a more empathetic person than you were before.