CW: Anxiety and OCD
I’m so sad that I didn’t enjoy this one! The Fault in our Stars is still my favourite book of all time and John Green’s work as an author and a Vlogbrother has helped me and continues to help me so much on a weekly basis. I know how worried he was about expectations leading up this book’s release, so it’s such a shame that Turtles All The Way Down didn’t meet mine.
Aza Holmes is trying to make it through high school and be a decent friend and daughter, but it’s not easy when your anxiety and OCD make your body feel like nothing more than a house for bacteria and unwanted thoughts which is almost definitely going to contract a fatal disease at any moment. Things get even more complicated when she discovers that Russell Pickett, the billionaire living across the river has gone missing, wanted for some serious fraud. More than a juicy story to follow, there’s a $100,000 reward at stake, and Aza just happens to have history with Pickett’s son Davis. Aza’s best friend Daisy convinces her that they should set off in their canoe to look for clues, but what they find on the Pickett estate is not what Aza is expecting.
The main issue with this book is that not a lot happens! It mostly focuses on Aza’s internal anxieties, which I totally understand, but outside of that, the plot seems so thin and weird and pointless. It goes off on lots of tangents which don’t appear to lead anywhere.
I don’t understand why Davis has to be the son of a missing criminal billionaire. It seems like he’s only there to give Aza another tortured soul/ neglected teenager to be with, to facilitate the exploration around OCD and intimacy and so that the characters can make comparisons between their relative wealth and privilege. He could easily play the same role and support Aza as an average teenager. He is presented as this normal, sweet boy, but despite his difficulties the outlandishness of his wealth makes him arrogant, so I found it difficult to connect with him.
The other characters aren’t much more likeable either. Aza’s mum is so consumed with worry that she can’t see that there was no way her behaviour is helping Aza to get better. I could identify with Aza a lot, but her anxieties make it very difficult for her to maintain relationships and I could sympathise with the frustrations of those around her. Daisy is by far the best and funniest character, but even she shows her prejudice towards mental illness at one point.
One common criticism of John’s novels is that he always writes in his voice and not that of teenagers. I strongly disagree; I think he writes teenagers well and I think every author’s voice comes through in each of their books. However, because John has talked so often in other media about his own mental health problems and he uses the same language and metaphors to describe his and Aza’s issues, it was very difficult for me to hear those words as Aza’s rather than John’s. This made it even harder to connect with the story.
Although it was good to identify with a young woman going through similar experiences of mental illness to an extent, I found Aza’s struggles with anxiety and OCD very difficult and painful to read. It was like her anxiety transferred over into me. My own experiences of anxiety feel awful enough, but hers are so much worse than mine and I just felt so terrible for her.
However, I did appreciate how unflinchingly honest and graphic John is about how horrible and relentless mental illness can be. I liked the argument Aza and Daisy have towards the end and I wish there had been more in-depth discussions about society’s attitudes towards mental illness how this can affect relationships. I also wish that Aza received better support and validation for what she was feeling. She has to make do with an unsure best friend, an overprotective mother and a clinical therapist. There’s only Davis saying ‘It’s ok, I like this you’ and she deserves way more of that.
Overall, I think it was brave and right for John to tackle the ugly realities of mental illness in such a candid way for YA, but the story needed to be so much better and it left me wanting so much more.