Spread the news: John Green has officially broken free of the sappy, lovesick formula that plagued his first novels. He became an extremely popular writer after the release of his global bestseller, The Fault in Our Stars. It is his newest book, however, Turtles All the Way Down, in its millionaire-busting, Star-Wars-loving, mental-illness exploring glory, that sets Green apart as an author who truly understands his teenage audience.
The young adult novel follows Aza Holmes (an ode to literature’s quintessential detective, Sherlock Holmes) as she is recruited by her best friend, Daisy, to research the disappearance of Samuel Pickett, a fraudulent millionaire. The search leads them to Pickett’s son, Davis, who Aza met at camp years ago. Aza’s secret investigation and her confusing feelings for Davis immediately complicate their reunion.
The most important storyline of the book, however, is Aza’s relationship with her own mind. She wages a constant battle with obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, an anxiety disorder characterized by intrusive and repeated thoughts. This creates a unique, compelling narrative that makes Turtles All the Way Down John Green’s best book yet.
Green himself grapples with OCD, and he pours his own experiences and troubles into Aza’s perspective. “It’s definitely a made up story,” Green explains in a YouTube video titled “My New Book.” “It’s still kinda a personal one because . . . I have a mental illness that at times has taken over my life.” His candor results in a brutally realistic depiction of mental illness, and Aza’s age and voice provide a powerful take on the issue.
But the book is not entirely dark; Green weaves in well-placed humor and wonderful figurative language into the storyline. His writing style varies with Aza’s condition, as the narration sometimes switches between first person and second person whenever Aza suffers through a mental breakdown. The second person point of view demonstrates Aza’s detachment from her actions. As Aza says, “When I look into myself, there's no actual me -- just a bunch of thoughts and behaviors and experiences. And a lot of them just don't feel like mine.” In addition, the first person point of view in the book allows Green to accurately present Aza’s conflicting irrational and rational thoughts, such as her overbearing phobia of contacting a bacterial infection and her effort to prevent that fear from taking over her life. Although this makes Turtles All the Way Down a challenging read at times, it also makes the book an invaluable guide about understanding OCD.
When the reader isn’t experiencing the ferocious tug-of-war of thoughts in Aza’s mind, they’re watching her crush on Davis Pickett, a rich boy who can obtain almost anything he wants, except functioning parents. Unlike Green’s previous works, which all revolved around love stories, Davis and Aza’s relationship is a subplot of the book. This is refreshing compared to Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns, which explored and exalted teenage boys as they relentlessly pined after girls. While Green unfortunately continued his penchant for creating pretentious characters in his new novel, he also mastered the ability to make them endearing. Davis, for example, is an astronomy nerd who has a knack for dissecting complex philosophical statements. Yet he is also sweet and understanding, especially when it comes to Aza’s OCD and its seeming irrationality. Daisy is even more loveable, with her mantra of, “Break hearts, not promises,” and her Rey-slash-Chewbacca fanfiction.
Thankfully, these characters don’t rise above the normal flaws of teenagers. Daisy and Aza hunt after Pickett because of the hundred grand reward, not because they were cliched teens bored of their eight-to-three school day. The main characters constantly meet up at Applebee’s, as if they were in a sitcom, simply because they pay using a coupon book -- in order to save money for college. In addition, the story is littered with genuine complaints about unsolicited photos, homework, and unfair teachers. Although these traits and motivations may seem insignificant, they add an age-appropriate and relatable third dimension to the characters.
Through his exceptional characters and the intense problems they face, John Green creates a terrifyingly authentic portrait of mental illness that is enveloped in a special understanding of teenagers. In doing so, he proved that he could create an amazing and fresh novel without merely rehashing the plots of his earlier books. Turtles All the Way Down will leave you wanting to learn more about the tumultuous lives of Aza and her friends, and eager to read anything that Green writes about them -- a short story, a follow up novel, or even a spinoff based on Daisy’s offbeat Star Wars fanfiction.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.