In my past life as an eighth grade history teacher, I once chaperoned a field trip where I sat in the front of the bus with the other teachers, completely confused about why we could hear ourselves talk.
A quick glance back revealed the eighth graders, most of whomwere curled up in their seats, completely enthralled by John Green’s “Paper Towns”. One of the students had convinced the English teacher to cover the book that spring. Before this, I had no idea who John Green was. His most famous work, “The Fault in Our Stars” had yet to be published and made into a film.
There was a small contingent of passionate John Green fans among the eighth grade that year. They knew I loved to read and all year kept pushing me to pick up one of his books, but it wasn’t until “Paper Towns” became required reading that I acquiesced.
I read that book as voraciously as my students did, and moved on to his other novels, finding them brilliant and beautifully written. Green has been heralded as an author who refuses to talk down to kids. His books are about very real young people and their very real problems, from cancer to first love.
This fall, after several years, Green finally released a new novel, “Turtles All the Way Down”. The title was perplexing and the plot was kept a tightly guarded secret.
Once I finally got the book in hand, I learned that the plot deals with the mysterious disappearance of a billionaire, a girl named Aza who has mental health issues and her very best friend, Daisy.
The novel is classic John Green. It features a small group of hyper smart, articulate, very nerdy teenagers who have dark situations to manage.
Aza is 16. Her father died when she was young. She struggles with anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, which afflicts Green as well. Aza compulsively opens and sanitizes a cut on her finger that she has had for years. She constantly worries about developing C. Diff. She has what her therapist refers to as “invasives”, thoughts that threaten to spiral out of control and devour her.
When a hundred-thousand-dollar reward is posted for Russell Pickett, the missing billionaire, Daisy pushes Aza to reconnect with Davis Pickett, Russel’s son, who she met at “Sad Camp”. Davis’s mother died around the same time as Aza’s father and the two had been friends years ago.
Aza and Davis immediately connect and it seems as though a romance is fated to develop in the midst of a promising mystery. But this is a John Green novel and things are not always as they seem.
Davis comes from incredible wealth and has trouble trusting that people want to like him for himself and not for his money. Aza wants so badly to let herself fall for him, but her thought spirals get in the way. Kissing feels good, but also leads to a million thoughts about the germs that are transferring from Davis to herself.
Their relationship pushes Aza over the edge. She seems to almost be two people: herself and what she refers to as the demon within who convinces her to drink hand sanitizer to get rid of the germs.
And that’s when the real plot emerges. This is not a mystery. It is not a romance. It is an unflinchingly honest examination of mental illness. Aza struggles to even accept her own reality, sometimes believing that she is a fictional character.
It’s also a story of friendship. Daisy isn’t easy: she’s impulsive, pushy and overbearing. But Aza isn’t easy either. She spends so much time in her own head that she never remembers to ask how the people in her life are doing. But yet, theirs in the relationship that forms the heart of this book. They are both very real, three dimensional characters that you see at their very worst, but can still root for.
Daisy brings Green’s trademark humor to a very dark story, , but this is the least funny of all his books. Even “The Fault in Our Stars”, Green’s novel about two cancer stricken teens in love has more laughable moments. Aza can never shut off her brain and cannot let in deeper emotions. As the reader, we are placed inside of her head to witness the ever widening spirals of her thoughts. There is very little room for anything funny in there, which is why even the slightly annoying Daisy is a welcome character.
There is a moment in “The Fault of Our Stars” that you know is coming and leaves you devastated. I bawled my eyes out reading it. It was harder to predict how “Turtles All the Way Down” would end, but John Green crafts a moving conclusion that once again left me in tears.
“Turtles All the Way Down” was the hardest Green novel to read, but also his most affecting because it is so deeply personal. He captures the mindset of someone suffering from mental illness, all the while telling the story of his own anxieties and illness.
Green once said: “Great books help you understand, and they help you feel understood.” “Turtles” helps the reader to understand what mental illness is like if they have never experienced it themselves, while simultaneously helping someone who does suffer from an illness like OCD feel comforted and less alone because they realize that at least one person out there gets it. By his own definition, Green has truly written a great book.