Review: Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

In which, for once, I actually read a new book as soon as it comes out, but it takes me 7 months before I present this, my spoiler-free review. Herein also lies a tangential epiphany regarding the etymology of “analysis.”


Hello everyone! I wasn’t sure I even wanted to do a spoiler-free review at this point, or if I should skip straight to the rant/analysis. (Ranalysis? Analyrant? Can we coin something here?)

I Must Here Interrupt The Post for a Tangential Epiphany

Immediately after typing those prospective coinages and examining the pieces of those words, something floated up from the murky depths of random-knowledge-stew that is my brain. It was a piece that had broken off of the enormous lump of medical terminology that was once drilled into me, a deep voice that said “lysis—destruction.”

HOW HAVE I NEVER PONDERED AND ANALYSED THE ETYMOLOGY OF ANALYSIS? I had to know. If you’re curious:  the prefix ana- means “up” in this context, while -lysis means to loosen or break down. Literally, “to loosen up.” In the case of the rant-style analyses on this blog, I would say the suffix comes closer to its medical, destructive connotations. “To blow up,” we might say, as opposed to a more careful, methodical loosening. To blow up, leaving snatches of quotes and tangential rants and unfinished thoughts in the wake.

Back to the post!

Anyhow, I decided I couldn’t pass up the chance to review a new book. Well, new-ish. Newer than my usual fare, we’ll say. With that, we shall begin.

51j8ClOJzoL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgSixteen-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together, they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Pickett’s son, Davis.

Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts.

In his long-awaited return, John Green, the acclaimed, award-winning author of Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, shares Aza’s story with shattering, unflinching clarity in this brilliant novel of love, resilience, and the power of lifelong friendship.

-Goodreads

Okay. So to be fair, I read and annotated the heck out of this book back in the autumn when it came out. I’ve just read through my annotations and skimmed through the book, but bear in mind that I have sat with this book for nearly 7 months. This isn’t my freshest thoughts (I would argue my freshest thoughts on a book are never the most helpful anyway, but that’s another topic).

Writing Style

Turtles All the Way Down is not very good as a YA book. It’s a wonderful book, and I rate it 4/5, but I repeat: it is disappointing as a YA book. Let me explain.

Personally, I love John Green’s style. But you guys know me. I am not the target audience for YA. I don’t know why it took me so very long of unfairly judging books to come to that realisation. The majority of YA is made up of books that are tightly-written, well-plotted, and seek to entertain through compelling and relatable protagonists, an exciting story, and some themes about growing up woven in. These are good books, and they sell well, and they fulfill the perfectly legitimate desires of the majority of the market. First and foremost, they entertain. That is noble and important, and there is nothing wrong with reading to be entertained. It’s just that I don’t look to reading for that. I look to formulaic TV shows such as Blue Bloods for that.

Honestly, I read to have my heart broken. I love sad endings. I love prose that makes me want to underline it, that makes me ache with its beauty and truth, and that will stick in my mind forever, floating up to the surface at relevant moments. I love introspection and quiet happenings. I love big themes that have something to say about history, or the human mind, or the human heart. If a book can do all of that and still be genuinely entertaining, it will become one of my favourites.

There is nothing I can do to take the inherent pretentiousness out of that paragraph, so please accept my apology and my promise that pretentiousness is not my intention.

All of which is to say: if you love YA and find that most YA books satisfy your qualifications for a good book, Turtles All the Way Down will probably disappoint you. If you found The Fault in Our Stars insufferable for its style (the way the characters didn’t sound like teenagers was a common complaint I noticed in reviews of that one), you should know that you will find this book even more so. If you find introspection boring and are looking for an exciting plot, well, we’ll get to that in a minute, but there isn’t much there.

Conversely, if you find that most of YA leaves you feeling empty and unsatisfied, you should give this book a chance. If you loved The Fault in Our Stars, you will love this one perhaps even more. The style is impeccable, the metaphors superb, and I got chills more than once while reading this book.

Let’s talk about plot.

Plot

The “main” plot of the novel,  if we are to take the book jacket’s word for it, would be the mystery surrounding the disappearance of millionaire Russell Pickett, who also happens to be the father of Aza’s love interest, Davis. This is typical of John Green books, or at least the ones I have read (The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns, and this one). At the foundation, there is an eccentric person that the protagonist is consumed with hunting down (or simply travelling to, in The Fault in Our Stars) because that person seems to have something they want. This plot is always just a device to get the introverted protagonist out and doing things, and whatever they are looking for either doesn’t exist in the way they thought it did, or doesn’t matter in the end. What matters is the growth they experienced along the way and the realisations they have come to. And the metaphorical resonances thereof. Nothing wrong with that, it’s a solid formula for a coming-of-age novel.

The problem is that the mystery, so prominent in the description, majorly took a back seat in this book, and I question  whether it was actually necessary at all. There were times reading the book where I actually forgot about the mystery altogether, and then when it would be mentioned again, it was jarring. “Oh, right, that exists. And I’m supposed to care. And so is Aza.”

The second paragraph of the synopsis is the part that receives much more focus, and it’s the part that is actually relevant to what this book does well.

Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts. 

John Green writes Aza’s mental illness with the heart, depth, and nuance that comes from personal experience. As she worsens and begins to engage in disturbing behaviours that are surprising and yet utterly believable (I won’t spoil anything, don’t worry) I found myself unable to put the book down, I was so worried for her. Watching as her illness gradually gets in the way of all the relationships in her life, and knowing that eventually everything must come crashing down—that is what kept me reading. I’ll get into it further in my analysis, but the attempt at binding this very real, very gripping, ultimately hopeful but bittersweet story of obsessive compulsive disorder together with the comparatively anaemic mystery plot that really had no stakes upset the pacing and prevented this book from being as good as it could have been.

The worst thing about misleading synopses is that they trick the wrong kind of readers into reading the book, and potentially drive away the readers who might truly love the book. In fact, I was skeptical before this book came out, when my brother told me the plot of it. It sounded so bizarre and improbable. The bizarre and improbable synopses have driven me away from some of John Green’s other books, and that factor was part of the reason Paper Towns didn’t work for me. I probably would have read it eventually, but I wasn’t in any hurry and was so worried I would find it massively disappointing. What finally got me to read it was John Green’s NPR interview with Terry Gross. I heard that on the radio, and I went out immediately to buy the book.

I wish this book had just committed to being an introspective novel with an internal struggle at its core, rather than trying to graft on a sickly and forgettable mystery plot. I can’t say for certain that John Green wasn’t fully invested as he was writing the mystery bits, but it certainly read that way, and I was not invested in reading them.

The one thing I will say for the plot (I have another thing to say, but that will be in the spoiler version): I do like how it plays with the trope of the detective whose mental illness is the basis for his brilliancy. In real life, mental illness is a disability. The definition of disability:

2. A physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities; (as a mass noun) the fact or state of having such a condition.

-Oxford English Dictionary

Obvious though that is, it sometimes seems it needs restating. And I like that John Green shows, instead, an illness that gets in the way of everything else in the protagonist’s life. I only wish he had given Aza some more personal stakes in the solving of the mystery. I had no anxiety over whether or not she would solve it, and I typically love a mystery.

Characters

Aza was interesting, believable, and felt like a living person. There were times when it was eerie how relatable she was. I wrote in the margin on one page: “relating so hard I’m afraid to keep reading.” At one point, she reflects back on an odd conversation she had with her mom when she was little, and I had the same conversation with my mom when I was little. I almost threw the book across the room. I was so relieved to learn that she doesn’t really like Star Wars, because it meant I wasn’t reading about myself after all.

I so much enjoyed the friendship between her and Daisy. I don’t even know what to say about it. I haven’t had a chance to come across very many fictional friendships like this. Here’s an interaction from early on:

“How concerned should I be that you haven’t said more than two words in a row all day?”

“Thought spiral,” I mumbled in reply. Daisy had known me since we were six, long enough to get it.

“I figured. Sorry, man. Let’s hang out today.”

Can I just say that I am HERE for some supportive, understanding female friendships in fiction? Not saying this is the only example I’ve ever seen in a novel, I’m just saying they’re so enjoyable to read about, and they’re always welcome.

Daisy was there for Aza, but she was also a fully-fleshed out character in her own right. There was a real sense she had a life of her own, apart from Aza, which I feel is really crucial for secondary characters in a novel. Her reactions to the way Aza’s mental disorder at times got in the way of their friendship were difficult but also realistic. I’ll talk more about this in my rant post.

Davis was meh to me. He was a decent and typical YA love interest. That’s really all I have to say about him. His little brother was interesting as a character in his reactions to their father’s disappearance.

This post is getting really long so we’re going to have to wrap it up!

Overall Opinion?

I love this book. Will it satisfy all readers of YA? I think not. But it is the sort of book I look for, and it is the sort of book where every page gives evidence that it was deeply felt by its author. It is a beautiful depiction of mental illness, written by someone who understands it, and it ends with what I would call realistic optimism. I rate it 4/5, easily.

Have you read the book? Let me know your thoughts! My spoiler-filled analyses will be coming shortly.

Have a lovely day!

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3 thoughts on “Review: Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

  1. While I didn’t like this book, I enjoyed reading your opinions on it. I also liked how this was a more introspective book compared to other YA fic. John Green’s portrayal of mental illness in this book is, for me, one of the most believable portrayals I’ve read so far. One of the biggest disappointments for me though was Aza’s attitude towards her mother.
    I don’t know. It’s just, there aren’t usually any decent, let alone good, parental figures in YA, and finally there is one, but she’s totally under appreciated. Anyway, I too recently realized I’m not really the target audience for YA… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that was one of the things I plan on talking about when I do a more in depth, spoiler review eventually. I was very unhappy with that. I was okay with her pushing her mother away through most of the book because I assumed it would be resolved in some way as part of her character arc, but it really wasn’t. I understand that mental illness often results in pushing others away, but her relationship with Daisy was able to overcome that to a realistic degree by the end, so it really felt like an oversight. I love reading depictions of good parent-child relationships. Unhealthy ones are interesting to read about sometimes, but there is such a preponderance of them that it is becoming a bit tiresome. Often when the issues stay unresolved in the end, it seems less an intentional choice by the author than it does a plot thread mistakenly left dangling. Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

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