When John Green announced that he was finally releasing his next novel, I didn’t really care. The title was revealed and I thought it was weird, the cover was revealed and I didn’t quite care for the single orange spiral. As a teenager, I loved TFiOS and Paper Towns but wasn’t particularly impressed by his other works. However, as I grow further away from the age when I first read his books, the less I like them. Therefore, I felt pretty disinterested in Turtles All the Way Down’s release date grew closer.
But then I heard it was about a girl with OCD, a very specific anxiety disorder riddled with false stereotypes, which both John Green and I have, and I was finally intrigued. I received the novel through Book of the Month’s ambassador program which I am a part of, so I already had it laying around in my stacks once I decided I might take a look. Green has talked about his experiences with mental illness as a teenager and now as an adult a lot on his YouTube Channel VlogBrothers, though I haven’t watched a video of his in some years. My OCD is a pretty mild case; it doesn’t control my life, but it is one hell of an inconvenience. I am lucky enough to be past the worst of my mental illnesses (I hope) and am in the stage of regularly taking medication and occasionally meeting with a counselor. I still struggle, but not as much as I used to. The main character of Turtles, Aza, is, unfortunately, going through the thick of it.
Green focuses on the invasive thoughts that Aza experiences through her OCD, which I thought was really important in trying to diverge the universal understanding of this disorder away from people who like things neat and orderly and organized. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is different for everyone and definitely does not just make people clean a lot. The way in which Green wrote Aza’s OCD made it easy to see the process from obsessive and invasive thoughts to compulsive actions based on those thoughts. And, as someone who has had similar experiences, I found the way he wrote Aza’s struggles to be very genuine and honest. I had a few moments where Aza was having a thought-spiral or had a friend tell her how burdensome she was and I had to put the book down because those were so close to things I have experienced and I could feel panic rise in my chest. This sounds like a bad thing—I don’t think it is. I knew when to put the book down and remind myself that these are someone else’s feelings and not mine. It just goes to show how well Green can convey emotion and convey panic-inducing situations.
One problem that I have had with his writing in the past is how contrived and over-generalized it has felt, almost as if he was writing purely for empty, fake-deep quotes to later be used in Instagram bios and Tumblr graphics. To be completely honest, he still does this in Turtles, but to a lesser extent and even then, his to-be-quoted lines felt a bit more real this time around. I think that his writing has really matured since his last novel (was that TFiOS?), though it is still incredibly explanatory and strives to have these specific quotes to be pulled out and used over and over. It seems to me that he focused more on the character development and their storylines rather than the quote-able-ness of his writing, but I think he could push this farther still. Good writing doesn’t strive to be repeated and quoted, but strives to make the reader think and feel. Or, at least, that’s what I believe. With all that said, I really do think that the 6 years of work he put into this novel really shows and paid off.
I don’t believe I am properly conveying how much this novel made me feel. I had an ache in my chest while reading the entire thing, a both light-and-tight feeling in the depths of my heart that I only get when I’m reading a book that really means something to me. And while I will criticize this novel (because, honestly, you are doing the author a disservice if you are not critical of what they put out into the world), that doesn’t mean that it didn’t impact me emotionally. Because it really, really did. Aza panics every time she kisses a boy—physical and emotional intimacy give me panic attacks, which is why I have yet to be in a romantic relationship. She thinks a lot about how she’s not a normal person and how she can’t just do normal things like a normal person—a thought process I have every time I have to leave a situation due to anxiety overtaking me. The way she talked about falling into spirals and not being able to get out would make my chest feel tight and I’d have to remind myself that I was reading about her panic, not experiencing my own. Reading about someone whose experiences so closely relate to your own is so special and something that will never get old.
Green brought a lot to this novel that I really appreciated, besides just his depiction of anxiety and OCD. I really loved how Aza talked about the limits of language and how pain could only be talked about in metaphors—the many ways in which language fails us is very prevalent in literary theory and college literature courses, and I liked how Green brought that to a YA novel. That being said, a few times the we-are-limited-by-language bits went into quotable over-kill, but I appreciated the sentiment nonetheless. The point he made about pain only being explained through metaphors I found to be really interesting and I’m sure that’s something I’m sure I will be thinking about a lot. There was an emphasis on medication and therapy which I thought was good and healthy to include in a novel surrounding mental illness. Aza’s relationship with her best friend was very nice and very personally heartbreaking to read, but it’s a kind of relationship that a lot of people with mental illness can relate to. There’s also a bit of a mystery plot with a missing billionaire and a $100,000 reward, but personally it felt very subtle and in-the-background to me with Aza’s personal struggles up front. I liked how there was this background plot that slowly nudged the storyline along while the main plot was much more character driven.
TL;DR: This book made me feel something—or, rather, a lot of things—and that’s all I can ask for in a good book, really. I felt very connected to the main character and her experiences and it will never be less-than-comforting to read about someone who is similar to yourself. John Green’s writing has definitely matured, and even while he continues old writing habits I don’t love, I think he is a very good storyteller and I hope he continues to publish novels so that we can see him grow even more as a writer and a story-sharer. And, after finishing Turtles, I now have a special place in my heart for that stupid single orange spiral.