Book Reviews

Back to Article
Back to Article

Book Reviews

Alice Wanamaker, Journalist

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

Book Review: Turtles All The Way Down by John Green

John Green’s last book, The Fault in Our Stars (TFIOS), was released in 2012, and it’s difficult to find a person who hasn’t read it. It was voted TIME Magazine’s #1 Fiction Book of 2012, and Entertainment Weekly called it: “The greatest romance story of this decade.” Six years later, Mr. Green’s next book has at last come out. Turtles All The Way Down is a very different book than TFIOS. It is not likely to be thought of as a great romance story, despite being a romance. And it will not be remembered as a great mystery, despite the main characters spending most of the book focused on solving a case. But in my opinion, it is likely that this book-not TFIOS-will be the one to become a classic. 

The premise of the plot is simple: Sixteen-year-old Aza Holmes’s best friend, Daisy, cajoles her into becoming a detective when the wealthiest man in their home city of Indianapolis, Indiana, goes missing. Daisy (Star Wars fan, fast talker) sees Aza as her ticket to a massive monetary reward because Aza was once friends with the missing man’s son, Davis. Aza reluctantly accepts Daisy’s proposal. As they attempt to solve the mystery, Aza and Davis reunite and begin a romance. 

But Aza suffers from a fairly severe case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. She is constantly burdened by intrusive thoughts, which she calls ‘invasives’, that stop her from enjoying simple activities like paddling across the White River or kissing Davis. Throughout the book, Aza becomes trapped in a thought spiral that continually tightens, making it more and more difficult for her to function. There may be a mystery in Turtles All The Way Down, there may be a romance, but Aza’s mind is the star of the novel. 

When I was reading the beginning of the book, I thought that Aza greatly resembled Hazel Grace Lancaster, the star of TFIOS. Like most of Green’s main characters, both are extremely well read and prone to deep, introspective questions. Both have cheery, talkative, comparatively ‘normal’ friends who they alternatively love and are annoyed by (Turtles’s Daisy and TFIOS’s Kaitlyn). In the first few chapters of Turtles, I was a bit annoyed by the similarities I found. I’ve read all of Green’s books except his first, Looking for Alaska, and the main character traits I saw in Aza have been present in all the main characters except for one- Colin in An Abundance of Katherines, who is autistic. I was concerned that Turtles would have the same worldview as in Green’s previous books, just going through a different story-and the story in Turtles is not exceptional. 

But I was wrong about Aza. Although she does share some similarities to Hazel, Q (Paper Towns) , and Will (Will Grayson, Will Grayson), she is a very different character. That became apparent as the book dove deeper into her struggles with OCD. Throughout the novel, Aza is struggling to escape the spiral of her thoughts. The plot tends to take a backseat to this struggle, because there is a narrative in this: the spiral getting tighter and tighter, Aza trying to claw her way back to the surface. It does not feel like a battle so much as a careening, out-of-

control drive off a cliff. Aza’s struggles do not slow the car, they just push the cliff back a few inches. 

Mr. Green suffers from OCD himself. Trying to measure up to the success of TFIOS with his next book, he stopped taking his medication in an attempt to kick-start creativity. The result was a months-long, severe bout of the disease. When he finally managed to get it back under control, he started writing again, and that’s what was in his mind. Aza Holmes is a sixteen-year-old girl, but she lives in Green’s home city and has Green’s disease. Turtles All The Way Down is Green’s way of turning OCD into prose. 

And the prose is stunning-a description of OCD that has never before been matched. Turtles will be remembered for the way it brings OCD into a format that can be understood by anyone. I believe it has the potential to change the way our country views mental illness, and increase people’s abilities to empathize with sufferers. 

Turtles All The Way Down is not a perfect book. It copies a bit of the main character from Green’s previous works, and the mystery at the center of it is forgettable. But Green has accomplished the book’s main goal, and has possibly done so better than anyone ever has before. If you are reading Turtles All The Way Down not for the plot or the romance within it, but for the main character’s mind, you will not be disappointed. You will be amazed.