In Turtles All the Way Down, Russell Pickett, a billionaire CEO, is missing. Only Aza Holmes, a high school junior, has a lead that might solve the case. Yet this initial mystery is not the focus of this book, but rather a springboard for author John Green ’00 to explore obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Green has been public about his experience with OCD, and the plot of a missing CEO may be the weakest aspect of his novel. Green’s novel succeeds because of his ability to write about teenagers and their mental health while avoiding clichés.
We are thrust into Aza’s head through a first-person narrative, where we quickly learn about her OCD. Aza is plagued by a host of fears that she knows are irrational but dictate much of her life and daily habits. It is initially difficult to sympathize with Aza: She is quiet, anxious, seemingly selfish and certainly not extroverted. But as we hear her story and experience the world from her perspective, we see that she is quiet because she is grappling with invasive thoughts, and anxious because those “invasives,” as she calls them, are constantly causing her to worry about bacterial infections. The reader understands she is not selfish so much as she is helplessly stuck inside her own mind. Green takes us into these oppressive thought spirals, forcing us to understand how much of Aza’s mind does not feel like her own.
Many moments in this book are painful to read. When Aza gets trapped in a spiral of anxiety, her habits become more intense and self-destructive. She repeatedly pushes her thumbnail into her middle finger, causing her callus to crack and bleed. Perhaps the darkest moment in the novel is when Aza swallows hand sanitizer, afraid that some bacteria has transferred some microbial disease into her body.
Whenever it begins to feel overwhelming, Green throws in a tender moment between Aza and her friends Daisy and Davis, letting the reader escape Aza’s overwhelming thoughts for a while. Moments like these between the supporting and main characters in the novel are well fleshed out and realistic. They have quirks that keep them from becoming tired tropes that so many young adult novels seem rife with today. Daisy, Aza’s best friend, is eloquent and hilarious — those who love Star Wars will enjoy reading about the Chewbacca fan fiction she writes throughout the novel — and Davis is not a teenage prince charming. While he is sweet and caring, he also has his own struggles. The interactions between the two are heartfelt and sincere.
The plot of the missing billionaire leaves much to be desired. The beginning sets the reader up to expect a sort of mystery novel, centered on the disappearance of the Russell Pickett. After the first few chapters, the mystery is barely touched and only resurfaces at the end of the novel.
The ending of the novel is also realistic. There is no fairytale wrap-up where all the characters get happy endings and all the loose threads are tied neatly into a bow. While all the characters have developed and changed, they still face many challenges and their futures seem uncertain.
Despite some weaknesses, Turtles All the Way Down is still a successful young adult novel. There is intrigue and romance, and the prose is witty and at times profound. Green is able to throw in strange facts and obscure tidbits of information that are fascinating and provide different perspectives for the reader. He portrays a mental disorder in a way that is accurate and honest, and he doesn’t romanticize Aza’s struggles, writing about them in a way that allows readers to empathize with her even if they don’t have personal experience with OCD.