If I closed my eyes, I could picture vividly the last time I read a book by John Green. I was high school sophomore then, and had the luxury to spend entire afternoons reading non-academic books. The book I picked that day was The Fault in Our Stars, and it made me stay in the same armchair for hours.
Fast-forward four years, and there are some things that haven’t changed all that much. The heroine of John Green’s new novel Turtles All the Way Down is much like Hazel Grace as she’s a quirky, nerdy sixteen-year-old girl who embarks on an adventure and encounters friendship and love along the way, all the while battling a chronic illness that stands between her and happiness. I picked up the book the day of its release at SFO, and stayed focused on the pages in my narrow airplane seat for the entire flight.
The story goes like this: Aza Holmes, an Indianapolis teenager with a severe case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, is constantly plagued by her uncontrollable, spiraling thoughts. When the city’s billionaire Russell Pickett goes missing after being accused of fraud, Aza’s best friend Daisy begins an investigation effort and enlists the somewhat reluctant Aza, in hopes to win the $100,000 reward together. Aza had previously known Pickett’s son Davis from a program for children who’d lost one or both of their parents. And as the investigation gains momentum, Aza and Davis’ reunion rekindles their old friendship and unparalleled emotional bond, drawing them into an inevitable romance. To put it in Aza’s own words, “it’s quite rare to find someone who sees the same world you see.”
Thus begins a heart-wrenching and bittersweet romance that, like most love stories Green has written, is doomed from the start. Davis struggles to assert his own identity and separate his self-worth from his father’s fortunes, while trying to cope with the trauma of losing his father, and care for his little brother at the same time. Aza, on the other hand, feels all the more defeated in her battle with OCD for control over her mind.
Green presents the readers with the heartbreakingly realistic portrayal of OCD. Aza’s paranoid about the microorganisms in her stomach taking over her entire body; She has a self-inflicted wound on her finger that she can’t help reopening over and over again; She’s terrified of hospitals, physical contact, and the possibility of contracting a C. diff infection to a point where she drinks hand sanitizer, all the while knowing that it wouldn’t actually help; She’s worried about sweating more than she is actually sweating, and she can’t even escape her mind’s relentless warnings about bacteria when she’s kissing Davis. The ever tightening thought spirals make Aza question if she is truly the author of her own life — if she’s even real. After all, if our thoughts make us who we are, the inability to choose what one thinks and doesn’t think about implies a complete lack of control.
Green’s writing, as always, is filled with emotional intensity and philosophical depth. While the effects of sophisticated one-liners and intricate metaphors can wear off as the story goes on, most of the time they read like a hard punch to the gut. Like his previous novels, this story is an emotional rollercoaster that leaves the readers reeling in the aftermath, long after the very much unexpected but realistic ending in the final pages.
Its main difference from his past works, however, lies at the heart of the story, and it’s one of the things that led me to believe that he has undergone a metamorphosis as an author in the long five years it took for him to publish this novel. If The Fault in Our Stars mainly deals with death and how little say we have in our mortality, Turtles All the Way Down focuses instead on the hardships of the living, and the tragedy in not being able to control how we live, which is arguably an even more difficult and nuanced concept to translate into words.
The topic, in addition, is extremely personal for the author himself. As someone who suffers from severe OCD, Green has undergone several intense periods of anxiety in the past few years, especially following the overwhelming success of The Fault in Our Stars. On the Youtube channel he shares with his brother Hank, vlogbrothers, Green has openly discussed how his personal experience compelled him to write this book, and the intricacies in writing about mental illness, since it’s not something that can be directly observed. Yet, as it turns out, he did it phenomenally.
In a climatic scene where Aza goes through her most painful mental breakdown yet, her thoughts on the page became indistinguishable from mine, and I began hyperventilating before I could realize the panic attack was not my own. Having been locked in a seemingly never-ending battle with anxiety and panic attacks for the past few years, I have never read a better portrayal of what it’s like to live terrified of one’s self and suffocated by incessant, toxic thoughts. “Let me up out of this,” Aza quotes Molly Bloom from Ulysses, and somehow, it becomes a powerful statement for those suffering from mental illness.
In an interview with the New York Times, his longtime editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel, called the novel as an “unbelievable act of translation,” and her description could not be more accurate. Turtles All the Way Down takes a courageous, optimistic outlook, and succeeds in bridging the seemingly impossible gap between those with mental illness and the people around them. Yes, most people are never going to fully understand and empathize, but this is a start.
“Spirals grow infinitely small the farther you follow them inward, but they also grow infinitely large the farther you follow them out.”
Andrea Yang is a sophomore in College of Arts and Sciences, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org