Paper Towns, The Fault in Our Stars, Looking for Alaska – all critically-acclaimed, top-selling books written by the one and only John Green. His quirky teen characters and complex writing has earned him a reputation of being one of the best Young Adult writers of his generation. So once his newest book, “Turtles All the Way Down,” appeared on my doorstep in the brown, Amazon delivery box, I had high expectations. Unfortunately, it did not live up to the hype surrounding John Green’s other novels, but it’s unique characters and thought-provoking message still made it a worthwhile read.
The book follows 17-year-old Aza Homesley. On the outside she gets good grades, maintains a small social life, and appears to be in good health, but on the inside she is suffering from a debilitating mental illness.
Although the official name of her illness was never revealed in the 280 pages, her symptoms emulate obsessive compulsive disorder and extreme anxiety.
During Aza’s anxiety attacks, which she calls “mind spirals,” her mind splits into two different sides: reality and irrational fear. One side tells her a stomach rumble is life-threatening bacteria eating away at her insides. The other knows she’s just hungry.
John Green does a fantastic job of putting the reader in Aza’s head to experience her inner battles. Throughout the story, I was locked in Aza’s mind, experiencing every one of her anxiety attacks and breakdowns. Reading the back and forth, intense mental banter I couldn’t help but get pulled into the anxiety with her. I found myself having to put down the book every so often just to take a breath and disconnect from Aza’s inner turmoil.
My one major frustration with the book is that the beginning is incredibly slow. The entire first half has no grabbing hook, no intriguing event or mysterious character to pull me into the story and keep me turning the pages. Yes, exposition is essential to set up the plot and characters, but close to 120 pages in a 280 page book is too much.
There were some small sparks of interesting scenes, but no explosions. Devoting a whole chapter to Aza driving her friend to work isn’t genius plot, it’s straight-up boring. I expected to become more acquainted with Aza’s struggles with mental illness, but I really didn’t understand Aza’s pain until the second half because in the first half it didn’t have a major effect on her everyday life.
However, after painfully trudging through the the first 120 pages, the pace finally picked up and I started to get pulled in. Romance appears, Aza’s past struggles are revealed, there is a car accident, and Aza gains a new outlook on life. Unfortunately, none of these exciting, fast-paced events occur in the first half.
However, the slow beginning was worth suffering through to reach the real plot. I enjoyed the brief but cute, awkward teen romance that was introduced but mainly I was loved learning more about Aza’s mental illness struggles.
In the second half, she hits a low and the impact of her anxiety on her daily life and relationships is finally exposed. Problems like not being able to kiss a boy without rinsing her mouth multiple times with hand sanitizer afterwards are finally revealed, allowing me to start to understand, and even connect with Aza and her mental illness.
But I’m glad I did make it through to the end; Green ties together the story with a message about accepting oneself for who you are. I won’t tell you exactly what happens, I’m not fan of spoiler alerts, but know this – even if you don’t cry, you’ll be left touched by John Green’s brilliant ending.
“Turtles All the Way Down” was no different from the rest his novels which all share and beautiful, real messages.