Book review: Turtles all the way down by John Green

turtles all the way down

Pages: 304

Published by: Dutton Books for Young Readers

I’m a fan of John Green’s previous work, despite sometimes finding a bit of a disconnect between myself and the characters, as I’ve often thought they were pretentious or extremely unrelatable. So, of course I was super excited to get my hands on his newest novel; Turtles All the Way Down.

In my opinion, John Green nailed it with the protagonist Aza in this novel. Her character was fully formed, and the way that he depicted the struggles she has with anxiety and her own spiralling thoughts was honestly one of the most well-rounded yet respectful descriptions of such that I’ve ever read.

It really felt like John Green had lived the concept himself – so often I see authors try and grasp this and make it seem pretentious, insincere and insulting, but with Aza it came across as raw, honest and often heartbreaking.

“I would always be like this, always have this within me. There was no beating it. I would never slay the dragon, because the dragon was also me. My self and the disease were knotted together for life.”

The plot, in my opinion was almost secondary to what was happening inside Aza’s head – which felt genuine as that is how everything would be for someone who was experiencing the same turmoil.

The story was an amazing character study, but I was also hoping for more story beyond this. It starts out as a promising mystery, with Aza and her best friend Daisy looking for clues to discover what happened to the towns notorious billionaire Russell Pickett (conveniently the father of Davis, who Aza knew in her childhood).

Although that sort of falls behind and comes in and out of focus in a very randomly haphazard way throughout the story, I still felt invested enough in the characters to want to continue the story through to the end.

I loved Daisy’s character – feisty, fun, loyal and a Star Wars fanatic, she also represented the very real side of anxiety and mental health, and how a person’s struggles can truly affect those closest to them. Her friendship with Aza is my favourite from any John Green novel – it just feels to real and unrelenting! And although at times she does come across as a little bitchy, I think it’s important to have the rounded picture of how the hidden demons of mental struggles can affect outside relationships.

Many relationships deepen over the course of the story, and Aza is forced with trying to come to terms with this shift. Whilst struggling with typical John Green question such as the meaning of life and existence, whilst also battling the thought spirals that are threatening to engulf her at any given moment, it’s no surprise (and I think actually feels more respectful to Aza’s character) that she decides she is not in the best place to commit to anything too big.

“It’s getting sucked into a whirlpool that shrinks and shrinks and shrinks your world until you’re just spinning without moving, stuck inside a prison cell that is exactly the size of you, until eventually you realize that you’re not actually in a prison cell. You are the prison cell.”

Also, it was quite a refreshing change that the romance wasn’t a pivotal point of the book. John Green is great at writing quirky, complex and sometimes strange love stories, but Turtles All the Way Down has far more substance. The romance was far more subtle, and I think for that it was more relatable than those in his previous works.

The story was compelling just for the pure fact that Aza’s head seems like a terrifying, but also fascinating place. Reading this novel will truly make you appreciate the complexity and magnitude of the problems with mental health that so many are facing. It’s a real slap in the face, it shocked me and also gave me a profound respect for all of the strong people who, like Aza have to fight a battle within themselves every day.

That said, I did feel like the story got a little lost along the way. I feel I would have enjoyed Turtles All the Way Down more if the story was front and centre. I was looking forward to getting my teeth stuck into a good mystery, that worked alongside the character development rather than being completely overshadowed by it. It had some pretty good elements of the suspense and build-up of a good mystery story, but just seemed to give up half way through.

Aza is of course the stand out character for me in this story, but I am also wondering when John Green will write about characters that represent teenagers as a whole. Taking Aza’s mental struggle out of the story as a completely different entity, Aza, Davis and Daisy are all far more wise, intelligent and erudite than your average teenager – the way they speak and the topics they discuss to me often come across as a bit pretentious (very rich kid discussing the secrets of the world!)

“What I love about science is that as you learn, you don’t really get answers. You just get better questions.”

I also missed a lot of the humour that is pretty typical of other John Green novels. Of course, he’s dealing with a very delicate and sensitive subject in Turtles All the Way Down – but I do think he could have struck the balance a bit better, and added some more heart to the book without sacrificing it’s hugely important message.

Turtles All the Way Down will definitely resonate with a lot of readers, whether of not they experience the exact same problems as Aza or not, it’s a good overall snapshot of how scary, real and unforgiving mental health problems can be. I am glad I read this book as it gave me an insight I’d never had before, and I think a lot of people could learn a lot from this book – especially to be kinder as you never know what someone may be dealing with.

I definitely enjoyed this book, although at times I found it a bit of a jumble and found myself wishing it would get back to the mystery side of the story. That said, I enjoyed it more than some of his other novels and the message it carries is certainly vital.

Have you read Turtles All the Way Down? If so, what did you think? Let me know in the comments below!

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