Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green


I'll admit it. I was going to read the latest John Green novel, regardless of its subject matter. I'm a fan. When I learned the title a few months ago, I was even more intrigued. "Turtles All the Way Down" is a phrase, often used in cosmology/philosophy/anecdotes all over the internet that references the myth that the world sits atop the back of a turtle, that that turtle sits atop the back of another turtle and on and on...turtles all the way down. It illustrates the philosophical idea of infinite regress or the notion that the reasons given to justify something must also have reasons to justify them and so on and on, to infinity. Green has a penchant for good titles referencing other things (The Fault in Our Stars, etc.) and I was interested to know how a YA book was going to incorporate this concept. He does it really well.

Aza is sixteen, an only child living with her mother in Indianapolis. A local millionaire has gone missing after some shady business dealings and, egged on by her best friend Daisy, Aza begins investigating the disappearance, with the goal of claiming the $100,000 reward. Daisy convinces Aza to contact the millionaire's son, Davis. Aza previously met him at "sad camp," a place for kids who have a deceased parent. Aza finds Davis and his brother living alone in a huge, secluded mansion, mourning their mother and convinced that their father has abandoned them. She soon discovers that she and Davis share a deep connection and sense of isolation.

Aza's isolation is different, however. She suffers from severe obsessive compulsive disorder. She is often triggered by the smallest detail and frequently finds herself in a downward spiral of her own obsessive thoughts. At one point she cuts her finger and spends long passages of the novel obsessing over whether or not it is clean, whether she needs to change the bandage, if she has contracted some parasite or bacteria that will give her a deadly disease and how many more times she will need to clean and disinfect her cut before she can be certain she will not die from the disease. Meanwhile, she is experiencing all the traditional teenage trials; high school drama, crushes, fights with her friend Daisy, the feeling of not belonging anywhere. She tries to focus her energies on overcoming her consuming thoughts and helping Davis find his father.

The mystery part of the novel didn't engage me in the way that the "mystery" of Green's previous novel The Fault in Our Stars did, likely because the investment these characters had in solving didn't feel as life and death. I also didn't find myself emotionally attached to any of these characters. Although very well constructed and well written, this did not deeply engage me.

Although I knew the book's subject matter was bound to be serious (with some humor and heart thrown in), I was not expecting it to be quite as dark as it is. Aza's mental illness and the in depth glance we get into her thought processes is upsetting. There were moments during her inner monologues when I, too, felt trapped inside the uncontrollable downward spiral she was leading. Evocative and vivid, Green's writing invites us to witness Aza's imprisonment inside her own thoughts. Like so many "invisible" illnesses, obsessive compulsive disorder is hard to face and recognize and having the heroine of the novel suffer from this is an important contribution to the discussion.

I'd recommend this to older YA and new adults. Also, fans of John Green will find that he's still exceptional at telling an honest teenage story.

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