“Anybody can look at you. It’s quite rare to find someone who sees the same world you see.”
In John Green’s newest young adult novel, Aza Holmes is the protagonist of this story and her mental illness is the antagonist. Aza struggles to deal with her everyday life including school, relationships with friends and family, the mystery of a missing billionaire, a romance from the past, and her mind that constantly throws her into tightening thought spirals.
The story begins with the announcement that billionaire Russel Davis Pickett Sr has gone missing after his money laundering becomes public news. Indiana officials offer a reward of $100,000 for any information on where he could be. Daisy, Aza’s best friend, who is worried about being able to pay for college and is longing to want to quit her job at Chuck E. Cheese, convinces Aza to help her try to find any clue that may help the police find the fugitive. It just so happens that the billionaire’s eldest son, Davis, went camping with Aza. They used to spend quite some time together as kids. So, Aza and Daisy become teenage detectives and Aza reunites with Davis who becomes a romantic interest. During which intrusive thoughts enter her mind thus making it difficult at times for her to focus on anything else going on around her.
Overall, I enjoyed reading this book. It’s a very typical young adult novel, easy to read with a clear coming-of-age feel. Just like with other novels by Green, such as “The Fault In Our Stars” and “Paper Towns,” the word choices and sentence structures add personality to the characters. There were many times when I read a sentence and I just had to read it once, twice, or even three times because I liked the way the words sounded together. For example: “And as I sat beneath fluorescent cylinders spewing aggressively artificial light, I thought about how we all believed ourselves to be the hero of some personal epic, when in fact we are identical organisms colonizing a vast of windowless room that smelled of Lysol and lard.” (pg. 2) I like this particular sentence because it does three things. 1. It paints a picture in the mind not only visual but also sensual by adding a smells that is safe to say most people have experienced. 2. It’s relatable, at least for me. Most people who attended public schooling know what school cafeterias can be like, especially that awful lighting. 3. It gives the reader a sense of who this character is. She is not a fan of the room that she is in. She is smart and can think about things deeply and thus observe society in a way that makes everyone seem a little self-centered but also remembering that everyone is the same.
Undeniably, the best thing about the book is the portrayal of mental illness, in this case specifically Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Aza’s OCD appears right at the beginning when she’s in the school cafeteria with her friends who are having a conversation that she tries to follow but she is stuck in her mind:
Ever since I was a little, I’ve pressed my right thumbnail into the finger pad of my middle finger, and so now there’s this weird callus over my fingerprint. After so many years of doing this, I can open up a crack in the skin really easily, so I cover it up with a Band-Aid to try to prevent infection. But sometimes I get worried that there already is an infection, and so I need to drain it, and the only way to do that is to reopen the wound and press out any blood that will come. Once I start thinking about splitting the skin apart, I literally cannot not do it. I apologize for the double negative, but it’s a real double negative of a situation, a bind from which negating the negation is truly the only escape. So anyway, I started to want to feel my thumbnail biting into the skin of my finger pad, and I knew that resistance was more or less futile, so beneath the cafeteria table, I slipped the Band-Aid off my finger and dug my thumbnail into the callused skin until I felt it crack open.”
– “Turtles All The Way Down pages 5-6
She goes on to try and not look up questions about a rare condition called Clostridium difficile (C. diff) which her mind seems to always convince her that she has due to the callused finger becoming infected. Her constant worrying and “thought spirals” end up affecting her relationships and as the reader, you can’t help but get stuck in the spiral with her. It leads her down a path of unraveling, a road she needs to take to learn, understand, and go on.
What makes this book particularly interesting is knowing that even though it is fiction, there is a raw truth to it. “I wrote it right at the last, in the last revision. That’s as close to my experience as I could get.” said Green in an interview. Green had begun this story while he was in college and revisited later on. His goal was to try to give his OCD a solid form, to be able to explain what is going on in his head while in a thought spiral. Aza often wishes to give it form and struggles to tell her family, friends, and even psychiatrist what is wrong. I feel that Green did a great job getting it out on paper. I used to be one of those people who used the term OCD loosely because crooked frames or unsymmetrical arrangements bothered me. Until I did some light research on the mental illness I thought that OCD only meant wanting everything to be perfect. But I was able to learn and feel what it means to have OCD. It is not something that anyone should use loosely.
I have to take a moment here and give kudos to John Green. There is a bit of vulnerability every writer needs to have in their writing because we writers get materials from our real life experiences. However, this author just took his writing to a whole new level. It has been five years since Green’s last novel was released. He made it known that he had struggled with some writer’s block. I can only imagine how hard it would be to write something so up close and personal.
There were some weaker parts in this book, in my opinion. The plot of the story and the supporting characters are lightly shadowed by Aza’s mental illness. Because that is the main theme of the book, it makes perfect sense to me and it is very true to life. The supporting characters, though interesting, weren’t able to shine as much as they possibly could have. For instance, I wasn’t quite sure why Davis liked Aza besides the fact that they were friends years before this story. I questioned how his patience was so good because it wasn’t very clear that he was aware of Aza’s OCD until near the end.
Then there is the plot. Like in all stories the plot moves the story along and forces characters to act, learn, and change. I let myself take a couple of days after finishing the book before actually writing this review and I realized that the plot did not interest me as much as the portrayal of OCD. Some of it I questioned whether or not it could realistically happen. Yes, this is fiction but even in fantasy-fiction or sci-fi plots can be believable. That wasn’t the case for at least two plot points in my opinion.
In the past, I have enjoyed reading “Paper Towns” and “The Fault In Our Stars” both of which are popular among John Green’s fans. Despite its flaws, I truly feel that this is his best work yet. It is easy to see that the main topic at hand is very close to the author. Because it is so personal, Green was able to bring some clarity to mental illness and make it simple to understand. As a whole, the book is fairly easy to read as far as language goes but living inside Aza’s mind can be a little difficult. His use of language and sentence forms made me feel the anxiety along with her. When she felt the spiral tightening, so did I. It left me feeling anxious myself. I also feel that it was easy to relate to Aza and gain empathy. Lots of people suffer from some type of mental illness and if they don’t then they know someone that does. I think the objective of this book is to bring awareness and understanding to people who live with OCD or other mental illnesses. For anyone dealing with mental health, or watching someone they love deal with it, this should be on their to-be-read list.
I recommend this book for anyone already familiar with John Green or even to anyone who hasn’t read anything by him.