Book review: Turtles all the way down by John Green

4/5 stars.

I’ve come to understand that the type of characters this book is populated with are typical for John Green. That is, very precocious teenagers who are all amateur existential philosophers. Yes, they are unrealistic – I’ve never met a teenager (or any person for that matter) who speaks like Green’s characters. But, this being fiction, I don’t really have a problem with that. I find the language beautiful and easy to read, the thoughts mostly interesting and definitely something I can still relate to when thinking back to my own teen experience.

This book is mainly a story about a teenage girl with mental illness. Secondarily it’s a story about a missing millionaire, rekindling old friendships, dead parents, young love and Star Wars fan fiction.

There’s seemingly a lot going on, but at the same time it’s really more about what goes on in Aza’s head. Aza has some pretty serious OCD. She goes to therapy and has done so for years. Some days she functions, other days she can’t get out of her own head enough to form a sentence.

Although I fortunately never had as severe OCD and never had a mental illness that was as debilitating over such a long stretch of time as Aza, there’s still lots to recognise in the way she feels and the way she talks about it, when thinking about my own experiences with invasive thoughts, anxiety and depression.

For instance, Aza has a coping mechanism of pushing her thumbnail into the finger pad of her middle finger when she has unwanted thoughts and starts to doubt if she is real. To the extent that she always wears band aid on her middle finger as she’ll sometimes draw blood. My coping mechanism while growing up was imagining that I had a physical reel of tape in my head (behind my forehead) that “played” my thoughts. So when I got stuck in a spiral of unwanted thoughts I would make a physical gesture as if I were removing said tape and replaced it with a fresh one. It worked quite well for a while. It doesn’t anymore, but that’s another story.

I like that Green writes about mental illness without romanticising it. Having OCD or anxiety does not give you superpowers that will make you the worlds greatest artist or a crime solving genius. It just makes it much harder to function. And it makes you kind of self-centred, which is also part of Aza’s struggle. While I personally feel as if Aza’s BFF Daisy goes a little hard on her when she blows up about how Aza seemingly has no interest in Daisy’s life, it also illustrates how hard it is for people who haven’t “been there” to get it. And yes, it is perfectly reasonable that a normal, healthy, teenage girl expects her best friend to care about her love life, home situation and new hair cut.

I always found that one of the worst things about mental illness is what it does to those around you. The struggle between wanting to say that you’re doing better, because that’s what the people around you hope and expect, and telling the truth – that you’re still struggling – so you can get the help you need, is well captured. It’s horrible to see how worried everyone is, and it’s extremely hard to explain to them what’s going on. While mental illness is not your fault, part of having one is that it often feels like it is. Just pull yourself together, just do what everyone else does, fake it till you make it. What the hell is wrong with you that you can’t even get out of bed?? There’s a lot of unhelpful blame and shame. And guilt for what you’re putting people through. Guilt for not feeling better.

As mentioned in the intro, it’s very typical of Green’s teenagers to be philosophical. One thing that Aza struggles with throughout is her sense of self. What is self? Is there just one self? And if she is not in control of her own story, her own narrative, does she even have a self or is someone or something else calling the shots? This is also why she has trouble taking her meds. She is afraid to take meds to “be herself” and if she has to take meds to be herself, is that really her? Does she lose herself somewhere along the way?

While I know that psychopharmaceutical drugs can be very helpful and in some cases necessary, this is a struggle I can relate to. I’ve so far always been in the position that while these types of drugs have been offered to me at different stages, I’ve never really been pushed into taking them when I’ve said no thanks. The main reason I’ve said no thanks is because I’m afraid to lose myself. Sure, I come with a bunch of complications, but I still feel inherently me. I hear a lot about these kinds of drugs “levelling people out”, and while I understand that some people need that, the idea of being “levelled out” scares me (so far) more than my depression and anxiety. I have a fundamental need to know who I am and to feel like me – even if that’s sometimes a shitty feeling. I think Aza does too.

I have read that this is Green’s most personal novel, as he has struggled and still struggles with OCD himself. It shows, in a good way. He clearly knows what he’s writing about, and that is the main reason I really appreciated this book. Though I also happen to enjoy the characters, the quasi-philosophical writing style and the slightly outlandish outwards plot.

Aza’s inner dialogue between her “sane” and “crazy” self is eerily familiar, and reminds me a lot of the dialogue Allie Brosh has with herself in Hyperbole and a Half where she has serious episodes of depression and is trying to will herself off the couch or will herself to do anything really. Yes, I know I bring up Allie Brosh alot (yes, I typed that on purpose and if you don’t know why, do yourself a favour and google it), but I love her, OK? And it illustrates my point as she is another brilliant writer who really knows what it’s like.

I did start to lose interest a little bit towards the end, which may have been partly because I read the book in pretty much one sitting on Christmas day, but was probably also because the ending wasn’t terribly satisfying. Yes, I’m sure it’s more realistic, and it’s important to make the point that mental illness is often something you struggle with your whole life – I just generally prefer a bit of a tighter narrative (beginning, middle, end, clear development, what have you) in my fiction.

But I really appreciate this book. And I understand it must have been very difficult to write. I would like to thank John Green for writing so honestly about a difficult subject, in a way that both the teenage target audience and an adult like myself who still struggles can relate to.

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