by Alison Standish, Literary Critic
25 October 2017
There’s a certain expectation that comes with picking up a John Green novel, or any young adult novel at that. When I heard about Turtles All The Way Down, and how it was about a girl with a mental illness and an unprecedented rich boy with a missing father, I thought to myself: “Here we go again. Here’s another story that’s going to take mental illness and glorify it, a story that’s going to end with two broken people finding each other in love, a story that’s going to end, either in happiness or in sadness. It doesn’t really matter how it ends, it’s going to end in a satisfying way. Because that’s John Green, and that’s YA. Mental illness is a good thing, love is always found, and stories always end.”
I could not have been more wrong.
Turtles All The Way Down is an incredible exploration of thought and the deep personal struggle that can accompany it.
The protagonist of this story, 16-year-old Aza Holmes, is severely troubled. Her brain takes her on a never-ending spiral of thoughts, thoughts that all lead back to one thing: her severe phobia of a disease known as C. diff., which involves parasitic microbes that infest a body and gradually eat through and destroy a human being. Aza is paranoid of this disease, and her anxiety affects everything: her health, her relationships, her entire social life. Her mental illness is not glorified. Most YA books take a mental illness and make it intriguing, they make it beautiful and desirable. This book does the opposite: Aza’s illness is graphic. It’s comprehensible and it’s scary. It’s detailed, and it’s described correctly. That’s what makes this book so inordinately captivating.
Aza and her Best And Most Fearless Friend Daisy get involved with Davis Pickett, a broken boy who’s father is missing. The plot line of this novel consists of Daisy and Aza trying to solve the mystery of Davis Pickett Sr. They originally get involved for the cash reward, but soon Aza finds herself getting involved for another reason, Davis. Their romance is strange, unconventional, and as torn apart as the characters themselves. Their story is as broken as human nature.
In all honesty, the foundational plotline of this book is severely boring. The central conflict of the narrative is nothing new, perhaps bastardized in many other YA novels. There isn’t much substance to it. There isn’t a lot of suspense and intrigue as far as the story itself. However, the substance–the lifeblood–of this novel circulates within Aza’s head, in the graphic description and story of her illness and in the broken history of her past and present, in the illustrative and painful depiction of reality.
In all my years of reading, I’ve never read anything so real. This story is more than just a story, it’s a spiral. It’s a spiral of thought and a spiral of struggle. It’s a never-ending cycle of pain and happiness, joy and despair, love and ruin. This book tells it like it is, the uncensored, inevitable, bruising, passionate, destroying, pleasurable, enthralling, devastating, delightful, heart stopping and stomach-turning reality of life. Most books let us escape reality. Most books help us forget the pain, loss, and struggle in our lives. They distract us and bring us into an alternate universe, a universe that never matches the one we live in. This book does the opposite, taking reality and shoving it in our faces. Yet in some twisted way, it’s somehow comforting insomuch that it allows the reader to put into perspective the everyday difficulties that can plague anyone, high school aged or otherwise.
The external dialogue, the internal dialogue, the interactions between characters and the interactions between Aza’s own self and her mind are inordinately believable and capturing. Readers may begin this journey with Aza thinking that the book will ultimately end in disappointment, delivering an incredibly familiar narrative. I thought this book would disappoint me, I thought it would give me what I was so used to reading, a cliched story that doesn’t seem to take place in the real world. I was wrong, and readers familiar or unfamiliar with John Green would be wrong as well. This story was far from typical, it was fresh and unconventional. It wasn’t shallow in the least.
I will say that Turtles All The Way Down is most definitely not meant for everyone. At times daunting and at times downright scary, the depth of this book is not intended for the shallow-minded or superficial reader. Read it only if you’re okay with feeling pain. Read it only if you’re okay with thinking. Read it at your own risk. But read it.
Alison Standish is a literary critic for Oswego East High School online news magazine the HOWL