“It’s turtles all the way…down…You’re trying to find the turtle at the bottom of the pile, but that’s not how it works.” ~ Turtles All The Way Down, John Green
Turtles All The Way Down is a novel about friendship, growing up, and how a girl with (sometimes severe) OCD navigates the world and her relationships. Aza is a sixteen-year-old girl, with all the same worries and fears that sixteen-year-olds tend to have – including solving the mystery of an old friend’s missing father.
I bought and read this book because of all I’d heard about its mental health content. It’s the first book I’ve read that really represented the way my own thoughts affect me. I don’t have OCD, but I am very familiar with the thought spirals that Aza experiences. Because of this, I aren’t sure I can give a completely objective review. But this is my perspective, through the lens of my experiences.
One note though: I think this book is a good example of why I think trigger warnings and age ratings are important. (Not that stubborn people like me would pay much attention to them.)
I went into this novel with high expectations, because of the reviews I’d read, and heard, praising it. I was a little wary, as I had seen a few reviewers mentioning they found it difficult to read because of anxiety disorders. As mentioned, my curiosity wouldn’t let me listen to those warnings.
I’m glad I didn’t. Putting the anxiety triggers aside, I really enjoyed this story. It is a good representation of mental health – John Green has done a good job of putting the reality into fiction.. I empathized a lot with Aza, and the conflicts she feels regarding her family and life. Trying to assimilate into a world of relatively healthy people when you have thoughts and behaviors you don’t feel in control of can be extremely challenging. I found myself longing for what felt like the simple romance of the nights she spent outside with Davies (the love-interest), and for her close friendship with Daisy.
Aza didn’t feel unlikable at any point in the story. Though her illness caused conflict with her best friend Daisy, I never felt that Aza was to blame. Of course, from an outside perspective, her behavior could be seen as self-centered, but with the benefit of seeing through her eyes in the first-person point of view Green uses, we can see that it’s not something that’s completely in her control. Daisy does a good job of trying to be understanding, but she is only human, and at one point in the story, it’s revealed that she’s done something that I considered quite underhanded. That action did make me lose a little sympathy for her.
In general, I felt the characterization was was realistic. Even the secondary characters, such as Daisy’s on-off boyfriend Michael felt developed. I had the sense that if I looked closer at him, I’d find a human.
One of the criticisms I’ve seen of the novel is that the mystery- the supposed main plot of the story – isn’t a central enough to the story. I think these criticisms are valid, to a point. The mystery isn’t the main point of the story – it’s a character-driven book – but the mystery does drive the story. Without it Aza and Davies wouldn’t meet, and therefore Aza wouldn’t have been pushed as far into her crisis as she was – neither would the conflict between Aza and Daisy have developed. During the story, the two girls come into some money, and this highlights a crucial difference between them – Aza is the classic middle-class girl we often find in modern American YA novels, while Daisy comes from a poorer world, a world we as readers rarely get to see.
Aza doesn’t agree with how Daisy spends her money,, but as Daisy points out, as a girl who has a laptop and a car of her own, what right does she have to comment? I wonder if this a subtle social comment by Green. Even if it isn’t intentional, it’s an important moment in the story, one I would like to see explored more.
The book’s main theme of relationships is always expressed through the lens of mental health. Aza’s relationship with her mother is important to the story, as is her relationship with her dead father. The book is really about all these interconnecting relationships, and how mental health can affect them.
Another important relationship in the story is that between Davies and his missing father (the subject of the mystery). Davies’ father, despite being rich enough to provide for both of his sons (Davies and his brother) all of their lives, he leaves his fortune to an animal, the mythical tuatara. I think this is a symbol for all the things that can get in the way between parents and their children. This animal, which promises to unlock biological secrets, sits in the middle of the novel, the symbol of greed, and money, and all the evils it can do.
The turtles within the title are also a symbol, but a more cryptic one. There is a tiny scene in the story that explains it, and it’s a scene I’ve read a few times, because it seems like a key moment in the story, a moment that almost explains the story. It’s “turtles all the way down” – stop looking for the starting point, because that’s not the point. There is no why for so many things. They just are what they are.
I would recommend this book, but with the caveat that it can be triggering. If you have anxiety of any sort, read with care. It’s an act of strength to know when to take a step back.
4.5 of 5 stars.