Turtles All the Way Down by John Green Genre: YA Published October 10 2017 Dutton Penguin
John Green’s latest novel since his successful The Fault in our Stars tackles a subject that Mr. Green is intimately familiar with: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Green has openly discussed his own OCD on his YouTube series and in essays. While trying to write a follow-up to TFIOS he struggled with not just the pressure of creating something after such a career-changing novel, but his own mental battle. So he took his OCD and used that as not just fuel, but subject matter for Turtle’s All the Way Down.
As someone with my own diagnosed mental challenges (Generalized Anxiety Disorder), I was intrigued by the premise of TAtWD. The story is told through the eyes, and thoughts, of Aza Holmes, who like her creator, has OCD. The reader sees Aza’s OCD through compulsive thoughts and actions, including her fear of bacteria, which is physically expressed through a cut in her thumb that she constantly opens, drains (of bacteria) and reapplies Band-Aid after Band-Aid. Aza is an interesting protagonist, she is vulnerable and honest, but she’s also got that touch of “manic-pixie-dreamgirl” that John Green insists on adding to all of his female characters.
Which leads us to the plot, which is pretty thin, solidly John Green, and completely not groundbreaking. Aza and her best friend Daisy are on the hunt to find out what happened to local billionaire Russel Pickett, who disappeared leaving his sons alone in their mansion playground. Aza knows Davis Pickett, Russel’s son from camp years ago, where they connected over the deaths of their parent’s (Davis’s mother and Aza’s father). The two reconnect and start to solve the mystery of the missing millionaire. Except not really. The amount of sleuthing in this book is minimal and it really proves to be a thin backdrop for the relationship between Aza and Davis, which is equally thin, and proves to be a thin backdrop for Aza and her mental illness. Now, I admit that I prefer plot-heavy books to character-driven dramas, but I know there is a place for character driven books as well, and if they’re done right they can be just as page-turning and compulsive of reads. I also wonder if John Green is trying to make a statement that Aza’s mental health totally overshadows any “plot” in her life. If so, maybe I needed a bit more acknowledgement that this was his plan.
But thin plot isn’t the only problem. One reason I was excited to read this book was because of the concept of a character with a mental disadvantage. There were really well written moments where I really think Green presented an accurate representation of something so hard to represent. For example, when Aza struggles with taking her medication because she isn’t sure if taking a pill to make you more like yourself is actually not being who you really are, the discussion of the unmedicated reality of one’s personality versus the medicated. But I think Green missed the mark entirely by not naming Aza’s OCD. Throughout the book Aza’s friends and mother, and even her therapist, talk about her anxiety, her “unique” personality, her challenges. But they don’t name the disorder. The term OCD shows up exactly zero times in the entire novel. And for this, I must fault Green. Sure maybe he didn’t want to write an “OCD Book” after writing a “Cancer Book.” But that’s exactly what he did, and when his fan base is teenagers (and other lovers of YA!) he needs to take responsibility for the fact that his job is no longer just “writer,” he is also an educator. Yes, sure, the point comes across what Aza has, but with no official diagnosis mentioned a lot could be confused. Readers may think that Green is simply writing about anxiety. And while anxiety is one symptom of OCD, it is certainly not the only one.
I applaud Green for showing us what it is like inside Aza’s brain, and I know it is no easy feat to write about a disease that has little physical manifestation, a disease of the thoughts and mind. There are some really wonderful moments, but as a whole Turtles All the Way Down relied too heavily on Green’s characters and tropes that have become too convenient and well, tropey—best friend fights, car accident plot-devices, philosophizing teenagers, and an unneeded teenage romance all included. The last few pages of the novel are truly wonderful, perhaps semi-autobiographical, and beautifully written, but they feel almost misplaced in a novel that ultimately let me down.