Turtles All the Way Down - should you read it?
John Green, young adult novel, published by Penguin, October 2017
If you’re like me the John Green book you’ve already read is ‘The Fault in our Stars’, an international bestseller that catapulted its author to fame and riches and sold more in its first week than all his previous books combined. (Also a glossy and well-done film version now.)
This novel is the long awaited follow-up. It’s taken five years to appear, and it’s understandable why. In one of his YouTube videos John Green catalogues the three failed novel attempts that came after ‘The Fault in our Stars’ and have never seen the light of day. Naturally enough, he was suffering from a version of the ‘difficult second novel’ syndrome.
John Green fans won’t be disappointed by this (even after the long wait). It’s got his trademark wit, tenderness and intelligence. He’s a master of entertaining dialogue, beguiling characters and profound insights into what makes people tick.
The ‘best friend’ character in this is far more charming than the main character, I mean, I want to meet her, but that’s intentional as most of the point of the book is to depict how the heroine, Aza, is held back by her mental illness.
This portrayal really is the genius of the book.
John Green has spoken about how he suffers from debilitating anxiety and OCD (again in his YouTube videos, for one). I remember a few years ago when an MP started talking about suffering from OCD, the huge sense of relief that successful, public figures could suffer such things. And John Green, as a superstar author, revealing his own difficulties in this area can only bring comfort to many who struggle with similar issues.
Aza, the protagonist of ‘Turtles all The Way Down’ gets caught in the ‘tightening spiral’ of thoughts that characterises OCD. With immense skill, Green details this from her point of view in the first person narrative. How could hearing about how someone has to open up a cut on their finger and change the plaster (Band-Aid, in American) over and over to avoid something terrible happening (and more extreme acts) be in any way interesting?
But, in Green’s capable hands, it is. It’s not only interesting but compelling. How we feel for Aza, stuck in the trap of her mind.
I’ve suffered such thought spirals and compulsive actions myself, and it’s the strangest and most wonderful thing when you see them exactly rendered like this – as though it’s you describing precisely the inner workings of your mind.
This is one of the reasons I write, one of the best reasons I think anyone should choose to write: the faith that we have more in common than divides us. That if you’ve felt or suffered something, chances are, so have many others. Even that thing that you think is too weird or horrible or awful to talk about. Even that thing that makes you wonder if you’re going crazy, or already are. The faith that by sharing it, you can offer solace to others, a simple ‘me too’, a reassurance, you are not alone in your weirdness and terrors.
This is the great strength of the book and it alone is more than worth the cover price.
Unfortunately, in terms of the rest of the story – mainly, there’s a mystery for Aza and her friend to solve – it doesn't come off quite as well. It feels a little perfunctory – there’s a lot of thinking about doing some detective work to solve the puzzle, but precious little actual solving.
There’s a romance, which is very different to the heartbreakingly beautiful love story featured in ‘The Fault in our Stars’. Again, it’s less satisfactory partly because of the nature of the mental illness at the centre of the story, so Green could hardly have done it differently, but it’s also less rewarding for the reader as a result.
Verdict: A brave and worthy follow up to ‘The Fault in our Stars’. As Green himself says, people were never going to love this as much as that. Respect and thanks to him for putting himself on the line, knowing many may be disappointed. I’m sure that now the ‘difficult second book’ is out there, and well-received too, he can soar again even higher, free of quite so much pressure.
Should you: Yes. Especially if you’ve any experience of uncontrollable OCD or anxiety.
If you haven’t, or you’re brand new to John Green, perhaps try ‘The Fault in our Stars’ or ‘Paper Towns’ first.