How do I even begin this review of John Green’s long-awaited novel Turtles All the Way Down? If ever a book was at risk to be threatened by high expectations and hype, then this would certainly be the one. Like many avid readers of Green’s works, I was both eager and anxious to read this latest release. I couldn’t help but wonder how it would compare to his other novels and his writing would still strike chords with me as it did when I first read Paper Towns and Looking for Alaska back in middle school. More than anything, I was afraid of being disappointed. My inner Nerdfighter desperately wanted John Green to remain the gifted storyteller that I have always viewed him as being.
Ah, Holly of the past. Shouldn’t you have learned by now not to doubt John Green? As per usual, I needn’t have worried: I ended up reading Turtles All the Way Down in a single afternoon because I was so caught up in the story.
My worries that I would be less able to relate to characters who are still in high school crumbled upon reading the very first page. As much as we’d like to believe otherwise, I think we’re all still a bit like our high school selves on the inside— at the very least, I can easily put myself back in my sixteen-year-old self’s shoes (made even more easy by the fact that they’re the same size as the ones I wear now) and remember feeling intensely awkward, stressed, insecure, and confused. Although my life is significantly different from that of Aza, the protagonist, I found myself quickly empathizing with her many conflicting emotions.
People often talk about how the young adult genre is apparently silly and shameful for adults to read. In her now infamous Slate article “Against YA,” Ruth Graham denounces YA literature by claiming that “the enjoyment of reading this stuff has to do with escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia.” These motivations for reading YA literature– or any genre of literature, for that matter– may exist, but I would argue that they are certainly not the only reasons adults have for reading books like Turtles All the Way Down. Reading about characters who lively wholly different lifestyles requires empathy, a skill that some readers clearly must not possess if they cannot see the immense value in reading YA literature. In a novel such as Turtles in which the protagonist struggles with overwhelming Obsessive Compulsive Disorder while simultaneously navigating her tumultuous teenage years, empathy is an essential key to understanding and growing from the reading experience.
Once that personal hurdle was crossed, the next aspect of the novel that struck me was John Green’s telltale writing style. Let me just say that I adore his writing style no matter how over-the-top, pretentious, and cheesy it may be at times. Whenever someone points out grandiose Augustus-Waters-esque dialogue to me, I can’t help but insist that that is precisely the point. I would certainly hope (and firmly believe) that John Green doesn’t actually think or expect all teenagers to speak like they’re in some sort of dramatic production. I think this somewhat pompous speech is Green’s way of emphasizing that teenagers are fully capable of being intelligent, intellectual, thoughtful people despite the media’s often negative portrayal of them. Take the following passage for example:
“We never really talked much or even looked at each other, but it didn’t matter because we were looking at the same sky together, which is maybe even more intimate than eye contact anyway. I mean, anybody can look at you. It’s quite rare to find someone who sees the same world you see.”
Is this cheesy? Yes. Is it true? Also yes. This is why I admire Green as a writer: he takes the time to delve into the little truths that so many writers skip over because they are supposedly too obvious, petty, or insignificant to be mentioned. As a fellow meticulous bookworm, I appreciate Green’s attention to detail.
Of course, I could not write a sufficient review of Turtles without applauding Green’s intense, genuine, remarkable representation of mental health issues. Aza, like the writer who created her, lives with OCD. While I am fortunate to not also struggle with this particular disorder, I have experienced plenty of anxiety. I cannot begin to describe how refreshing it was to read about a character who is not the “perfectly imperfect” girl we all for some reason aspire to be; instead, Aza is flawed in a way that most of us will never be able to understand from our own personal experiences. At times Green’s descriptions of Aza’s obsessive spirals were nearly anxiety-inducing in themselves, which is a testament to the raw honesty of this novel.
Overall, Turtles All the Way Down made me laugh, think, and remember why I continue to be an avid reader of John Green’s books. If you’re searching for a novel that will simultaneously captivate you with its characters and plot and move you with its genuine truth, then look no further!
What are your thoughts on Turtles All the Way Down? Do you have a favorite John Green book? Let me know in the comments section below!