John Green’s “Turtles All the Way Down” Captures the Spirals of Anxiety
By Amy Huynh
Five years after the successful publication of “The Fault in Our Stars,” John Green releases his new young adult novel “Turtles All the Way Down.” The story is a true representation of the teen fiction genre, with an angsty teenage narrator, a love interest, and of course, a quirky best friend.
Aza Holmes, age 16, is a troubled Indianapolis teenager who begins her journey following a mystery. Alongside her best friend Daisy, Aza searches for Russell Pickett (a billionaire who has disappeared after accusations of fraud and bribery) in hopes of receiving the $100,000 reward. Daisy just so happens to remember that Aza met Russell’s son Davis nine years ago at “Sad Camp,” a summer program for kids who’d lost one or both of their parents, when Aza had lost her father and Davis his mother. In their search for Russell, Aza finds herself falling for Davis, who is troubled now that both of his parents are gone.
The first half of the novel seems straightforward in its shaping of the conventional mystery — a missing billionaire, the murky water, a mansion full of secrets, trails and dead ends. It feels like Green has gradually gained enough courage to write a novel that follows the major success of “The Fault In Our Stars.” However, as the story unravels, it is revealed that Aza’s true torment is not the mystery she is trying to solve, but rather the repetitive, intrusive thoughts that fill her mind. At the heart of “Turtles All the Way Down” is Aza Holmes and her struggle with severe anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder — a struggle that Green himself shares.
In addition to navigating through the rites of adolescence — dating, college and friendship — Aza is constantly overcome with extreme dread and obsessive thought spirals that revolve around a fear of bacteria and infection. She has a cut on her finger that she obsesses about and continually reopens in order to drain it of infection and bacteria. She even has to fight off unignorable urges to put hand sanitizer in her mouth, which she sometimes falls victim to. The rational Aza who goes to see her therapist and takes her medication is in a power struggle with the mentally ill Aza.
The story takes itself inside of Aza’s head, which contains repetitive and unsteady thoughts that can be frustrating to read. There are recurring metaphors about mental illness, such as the illness-as-a-spiral idea that is used in every chapter. However, Green is a skillful writer who is able to override these repetitive ideas with sentimental stargazing scenes. Although Green’s characters can be deliberately annoying, such as the overbearing Daisy, they are believable human beings who try to fix themselves and their flaws.
The way John Green creates Aza’s stream of consciousness is skillful, as her thoughts feel unapologetic and genuine. Whether or not readers can personally relate to Aza’s struggles, this novel is resonating and comforting as it gives a perspective on life with OCD.