I remember when The Fault in Our Stars first got big, and I desperately wanted to read it. I was a Young Adult book reviewer, there was no reason I shouldn’t. But, I had a big obstacle. My mom. She made a point to read everything I read, and I didn’t want her knowing I was reading a romance novel. Because of this, I went through extraordinary lengths to get my hands on that book. I couldn’t buy it from my local bookstore, check it out from the library, or even borrow it from a friend (they would tell their parents, who would inevitably tell my mom). Eventually, I found it at a used book sale and hid in it my room, where I would literally read under the covers with a flashlight. Anyways, here I am, four years later, and able to say that I actually bought a John Green book and read it in public. Luckily, my mom will never know.
The first thing you must know before reading (it’s John freaking Green, of course you’ll read it), is that it will be painful. Turtles All the Way Down follows Aza, a teenager who struggles tremendously with OCD. Her story is so visceral perhaps because of Green’s experiences as someone who suffers with OCD. Green writes from inside Aza’s head- which means every thought she thinks, we, too, think. Her obsession is with the bacteria in her body and in others’ bodies, so she drains and reopens a wound on her hand constantly. Aza describes her thoughts as spirals, “the thing about a spiral is, if you follow it inward, it never actually ends. It just keeps tightening, infinitely.” This analogy is true for the reader as well. I often found it difficult to follow Aza’s thoughts, and longed to be able to pull her out of the “spirals” she begged to be released from.
“[I] can’t describe the feeling itself except to say that I’m not me…. Please just let me go. Whoever is authoring me, let me up out of this. Anything to be out of this.”
Often times, mental illness is glossed over, romanticized, or in the worst scenarios, cured when a protagonist meets a love interest. In Turtles All the Way Down, this was not the case. While Aza is romantically involved with someone, she cannot bring herself to kiss them for fear of their bacteria contaminating hers and giving her a deadly disease. This is not a problem that is magically solved at the end of the novel. Likewise, the supporting cast of characters do not simply exist to help Aza into a stable mental state. They have their own worries- from wondering if their identity is separate from their money, to navigating a relationship where both parties want different things.
However, it is important to note that Aza is not just her illness. She is a teenager- and more often than not acts like one. She worries about college, argues with her mom, and goes on awkward double dates with her friends.
Aza’s story is both relatable and heart-wrenching to the reader, just as the best John Green novels are. It is hard to follow up a novel which found such wild success as The Fault in Our Stars, but I am glad to say Green has done it.