Aza Holmes – Holmesy to her best friend, Daisy – has a mental illness, a version of OCD. More than most people, she lives in her own head, but she doesn’t feel like she has control over her thoughts; she gets into obsessive thought-spirals, during which she withdraws from her surroundings, down into her worries, fears, and compulsions – only none of those are strong enough words to communicate her experience to others. Metaphor is the best she can offer, but even metaphor falls short: “The words used to describe it – despair, fear, anxiety, obsession – do so little to communicate it. Maybe we invented metaphor as a response to pain.”
The plot, such as it is, is rather simple: Daisy convinces Aza to reconnect with an old friend from “Sad Camp,” Davis, so they can collect a reward for information on his recently disappeared billionaire father. But there’s more sadness than mystery here: Davis knows his father was a criminal and a jerk, but his younger brother Noah still hopes his father will find a way to get in touch with them. Aza and Davis do rekindle their friendship, while Daisy finds romance with fellow high school student and artist Mychal.
Climactic scenes are not related to plot, but to character: Aza going deep into a spiral; Aza and Daisy fighting; a car accident, an underground art show. The people and the relationships are the heart of the book, and it’s Aza and Daisy’s friendship that is its core. The romances fizzle, but the friendship remains – even through to adulthood, as we find out in the last few pages, which have the flavor of an epilogue even if they aren’t marked as such.
John Green’s hallmarks are all here: the fast-talking, articulate teens (who are more likely than the average bear to launch into enthusiastic speeches about science or art or history), the realistic relationships with parents and other adults (Aza’s therapist, for example), frequent literary quotations, and the way that technology suffuses all the teens’ relationships, from texting and FaceTime to blogs and fanfic and Wikipedia.
But Turtles All the Way Down is a deeper dive than, for example, An Abundance of Katherines. The characters face difficult issues, and not just mental health problems, though that is the primary one for Aza; there are also tensions around money and what it means to have too much (Davis) or not enough (Daisy), and the impact of losing one or both parents.
For all Aza’s difficulty in communicating her struggle to those closest to her, Green succeeds as well as one can in bringing readers into her experience (which is also, in many ways, his own). Turtles All the Way Down met, or even exceeded, my high expectations, and I plan to read it again. The not-an-epilogue toward the end was especially touching; I teared up a little on the last page.
Additional reading: Green answers many questions from readers on this reddit thread, including an image of the Pettibon spiral (image above) that Aza appreciates at Davis’ house; he also reveals that the fast-forwarding into Aza’s adult life at the end of the novel was his wife Sarah’s idea.