Turtles All the Way Down by John Green; published 2017 by Dutton Books
I’m just coming up for air from the whirlpool—or maybe quicksand—that is this book. One of the best/worst book hangovers I’ve had in a long time. I love that feeling!
This is the story of Aza and Daisy and Davis, high schoolers in Indiana. Aza has severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Her brain cannot let go of the idea that she comes into contact with millions of microbes every day, which may result in any number of horrific diseases. She has the symptoms for rare diseases memorized in a catalog that her brain uses to torture her every time she comes into contact with a new potential carrier—which is anything, everything. The Band-Aid on her finger hides a small cut that she can never quite let heal because she is obsessed with the idea that it is constantly infected, and so she needs to keep opening it to drain the pus.
Davis is Aza’s childhood friend, the son of a well-known and very corrupt billionaire. Just before he is supposed to be arrested, Davis’s dad disappears, leaving Davis and his brother completely alone. A reward is set for any information on his whereabouts. Aza and Daisy (Aza’s best friend) realize that they have some information that could help find him.
As Aza gets more involved in the search for Davis’s dad, her anxiety over her growing feelings for Davis (and all the new microbes that come with him) set her OCD off in an uncontrollable spiral—the “tightening gyre” of her thoughts. As Aza’s anxiety gets worse and her compulsions become ever more extreme, her relationships with both Daisy and Davis are strained. I loved the fact that Aza and Daisy’s friendship gets just as much attention as the mutual crush between Aza and Davis; this is not a love story.
Green’s description of the conversations within Aza’s head are scarily accurate. I have mild OCD and there have been times in my life when it has felt overpowering. I could feel the familiar anxiety triggered by Aza’s experience. I read in some reviews on Goodreads that other people with OCD had similar reactions. I didn’t realize that John Green has OCD—but I found several articles and a great short video in which he talks about it. He does a brilliant job explaining what it feels like when uninvited thoughts take over and, as he says in the video below, you have to wonder, “Am I actually the captain of this ship I call myself?”
At the root of Aza’s anxiety is the same question: Am I real? And am I really in control of my life? Who am I if I can’t even control my own thoughts? Aza has a wonderful psychologist who helps her deal with this question, but she self-sabotages by not sticking to the prescribed treatments. She doesn’t take her medication because she hates the idea that feeling like “herself” is dependent on taking pills.
Aza and Davis have deep conversations about her questions. I really liked the character of Davis. In some other reviews, I saw people complaining about how philosophical and annoying Aza and Davis were, and how that was unrealistic of teens. I beg to differ! Just take a look through my journals from my high school years. I loved to ponder deep questions. Were my ramblings annoying? Absolutely.
Despite Aza and Davis’s philosophical musings, the feel and pace of the book is upbeat, quick-moving. The book could have been a lot darker—and I’m sure many other authors would have taken advantage of that opportunity. But I appreciated that Green didn’t dwell in the darkness; he emphasized the light: their friendships, and the support that each of the teens received.
And because I saw many people wondering about the title online, I will say that “Turtles All the Way Down” is finally explained close to the end of the book. 🙂
Please do yourself a favor and read this book!