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Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
""Because it's turtles all the way down,' I said again, feeling something akin to a spiritual revelation."
The John Green hype is literally inevitable, so i gladly received a signed copy of Turtles All the Way Down as a birthday present.
Aza Holmes is a girl who suffers from anxiety and obsessive thoughts- what she calls "thought spirals". She is frequently anxious about a wound on her hand getting infected and dying from a fatal bacteria called C. diff. Aza is best friends with Daisy who is an avid Star-Wars fanfic writer.
The de facto storyline is not very thrilling: A local billionaire goes missing, and anyone who provides useful information will be rewarded a fortune.
It just so happens that Aza is childhood friends with the billionaire's son, Davis. Davis who writes sentimental journal entries on an obscure blog and adores astronomy. Davis, who Aza might have a crush on. Davis, who HONEST TO GOD writes terrible poems and recites them unabashedly to Aza.
What I really really loved about this book was that it felt like watching a John Green video. A lot of the clever or reoccurring elements- such as Star Wars references and the turtles, are so John-Green-ian that they are super easy to identify, but nevertheless the whole thing is enjoyable and fascinating.
Aza's headspace is a lovely yet difficult place to be in. A solid portion of the book describes the helplessness that Aza feels amidst her own obsessive thoughts. There are entire paragraphs of frantic shifts between italics and first person and second person- Aza at war with her own thoughts. Because Aza's mental process is a symptom of her anxiety and OCD, I hesitate to say that I slammed the table and had a "THIS IS SO ME" moment. However, Aza's thoughts were relatable for me because I often find myself in a toned-down version of Aza's plight. I have, for a long time, felt fractured within my own self, and often my thoughts do not rest when I want them to. I hope that we are not going to see the whole fandom arbitrarily identifying with Aza, but I am glad that Aza's case provides something people (literary people especially, I think, since we like to be aware/hyperaware of our thoughts) can identify with.
Therefore, John Green does a fabulous job portraying anxiety and OCD, and not romanticizing it, as many YAs often do. He drew on his own experience with OCD, and I think such a well-written own-voice story is so valuable and brave.
He writes a thought-provoking plot-thread, of Daisy misunderstanding and being jealous of Aza. At one point, Daisy says that Aza's mental disorder gives her the privilege to be self-centered, "[Y]ou're spoiled, kinda. Like, you've had this all along, and you can't even know how much easier it makes everything, because you don't ever think about anybody else's life." That was an interesting conflict that navigates how much understanding many are willing to give mentally-ill people, and what misunderstandings could arise.
However, John did not sell me on the romance (sorry, John!). Davis and Aza's relationship came out of nowhere, except for maybe lingering feelings from their childhood summer camp. And their love still very much felt like a summer fling- and a middle school one, for that matter.
They never figured out what they wanted or how their relationship worked. And there's nothing wrong with that. But I also couldn't see how they bonded. Granted, they were both melancholy and troubled people. And yes, stargazing and talking about the insignificance of human life is sooo infinitely cute, but as a reader, I expect more than that. Davis did not go beyond merely understanding Aza. Nor did their romance advance the plot, other than Davis triggering Aza's obsessive thought spirals. I almost felt like Davis and Aza's romance would look great in a movie, but for a book, it is somewhat lacking.
I try to ask: was I hoping for a melodrama where they heal each other and become better people? was I simply unhappy because their romance resembled my childhood fantasy of quoting poetry and being lovey-dovey under the stars?
However, I do think that John Green could have had a stronger plotline with his already amazing character Aza. When I finished the book, I could sort of feel what the story was trying to touch on- it was a feeling that everything is going to be better, a general optimism that it's turtles all the way down and things will work out, a sense of human warmth amidst the vast cosmos and unfathomably ancient stars.
But John Green could have gone one turtle further.