Review: Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Hello everyone, and welcome back!

Welp, this is a really big release and I wasn’t really sure how I was going to react to it?

On one hand, excited, because I do kind of want to like John Green. For all his manic pixie dream girling in his early novels and some of his fumbles in engaging with his fanbase (and detractors), he does really seem like a genuinely nice person IRL who is just…trying and making some mistakes along the way? I don’t know. It is pretty difficult to parse that based on someone’s web persona, but I’ll say that for now.

Also, despite the overwroughtness and problematic moments in The Fault in Our Stars, I totally was sucked in by it. I get it: it’s meta, it’s pretentious, it’s manufacturing sadness, etc. But it’s also just got some really lovely metaphors in it and the characters are well-defined, and I just like it.

So. Is Turtles All the Way Down a TFiOS, or a Looking for Alaska? (Also known as: a book that I threw across the room upon finishing, because just no. No.) Let’s get into it!

Turtles all the way down by John Green

Let’s start out with the cover on this one: while it does follow what kind of looks like the John Green formula now (since so many books copycatted the TFiOS cover in an attempt to sell), I feel like this cover kind of does the book wrong. It’s pretty meh. (I know, I’m a book reviewer, not a designer. But come on, it’s pretty meh.)

Turtles All the Way Down

Okay, so. This book is about Aza, which is the same name as the protagonist of Magonia because I guess John Green and Maria Dahvana Headley and Green are writing buds, but don’t let that distract you.

This Aza is a high school junior with anxiety and OCD that gives her extreme intrusive thoughts. She has a best friend, Daisy, who is a talkative fanfiction writer (useless aside: this is spelled fan-fiction in the book and that bothered me for Reasons), and an old crush, Davis, who is really into famous people quotes and being really existential. (To be fair to Davis, his mother is dead and his neglectful father has just disappeared, so he’s not just entirely Pretentious Emo YA Guy.) Now that Davis’ father is missing and there’s a big reward for finding him, Daisy wants to try to solve the mystery and get the cash.

The good in this novel: Aza’s internal monologue gives us a real insight into her struggle with her illness, and Green puts a lot of heart (and his own experience) into portraying it realistically and in a relatable way. The bits of dialogue in this book that are actually dialogue convey a lot about the characters, and that does tend to be where Green’s novels flow and shine. The book overall twists expectations a few times, and I found myself appreciating that it wasn’t a completely predictable contemporary adventure/romance.

To be clear, although that looks like a short paragraph and what comes below is going to be long, that’s a pretty significant amount of good. I think realistically portraying mental illness in YA is important, and I really appreciate when books don’t completely cleave to formula. I’m especially impressed by this in Green’s case, because this just really isn’t a book about anyone manic pixie-ing someone else? So yes. Significant good.

The bad in this novel: I actually have a really dull complaint to make about this novel. As usual: it was too short. I know, you’re sick of me saying that, but listen: this was under 300 pages long. That was not enough time to a) understand and unpack Aza’s feelings about her father, deceased; b) establish the characters beyond a few key traits, in Aza’s case largely her mental illness; c) understand the status quo of the relationships in the novel so that we can feel the impact of them changing by the end; d) get whole conversations in?

So I’m going to unpack that a little: Aza and Davis originally met at a Sad Camp, as in a place where they went when they were both mourning the loss of their parents. Aza clearly is still in mourning about the loss of her father, as she still clings deeply and regularly to the material reminders she has of him, but yet we don’t learn really anything unique about their relationship whatsoever (and very little to characterize him).

Secondly: although the portrayal of Aza’s mental illness really seems to work here, I’m not 100% sure how to feel about Aza, the character. On one hand, I get that Aza herself is struggling with who she is because of the intrusive thoughts and how they intrude on her ability to be who she wants to be. On the other hand, I vaguely know that she’s good at school and probably pretty and that she likes some music, sometimes, but beyond her illness, it’s really hard to track even the simplest things about who she is: what subjects she’s good at, what bores her, what kinds of boys she finds cute. Green implants her with the old chestnut he gives to basically all of his characters: her own problems make her self-centred, and she has to learn throughout the narrative to pay more attention to other people and their issues. That’s fine, since a lot of people are a bit self-centred, and especially if they have a lot to work through, but it’s not particularly original or interesting, and it doesn’t give me something to pin to Aza as being…Aza.

Thirdly: Aza’s relationships with her best friend, mother, and love interest shift throughout this novel, but we don’t really get much time to establish a status quo of what those interactions were like regularly before the novel, so it’s hard to feel the impact? Daisy and Aza, for example, have a conversation about their friendship that feels unearned because we don’t really have the context for it. Davis’ relationships with his father and brother, which also seem somewhat important to understand to invest in the novel, also feel pretty hazy in definition.

Lastly: this novel glosses over conversations a lot. The dialogue will start, then it’ll devolve into “So then he told me about how…” Which isn’t necessarily a totally invalid thing to do? But it happens a bunch of times, particularly between Davis and Aza, and it’s just…okay. So one of the great things about dialogue, even when it’s mostly one-sided, is how you can describe the other person and how they’re paying attention, how they’re moving, how they’re breathing, how they’re reacting. And you can describe how the talking person is telling their story, if they’re moving, how excited they are, how nervous. That’s what creates tension and excitement, I think, in moments where two people are really talking and trying to be close to one another; seeing how someone feels about opening up, seeing how someone else responds to it. Quite a few times in this book, we just don’t get that, so it’s as if the characters are talking at each other in a vacuum and not really…with one another? (All of these people feel profoundly self-centred.)

So, okay, all of that said. Let’s wrap that back up.

My beef: this book is too short to really invest in the characters and their growth. The bright side: this was a quick, easy read that didn’t stick to formula, and it had some great metaphors and moments to get readers who haven’t experienced intrusive thoughts to understand where Aza is coming from. It was also really not emotionally overwrought; it’s relatively underwritten given some of the pretty sad moments and character backgrounds, avoiding pushing its readers past the brink where possible (and where TFiOS would’ve gone, “CRY, READER, CRY”). (But Davis is still a little bit annoyingly pretentious, and my suspension of disbelief is challenged by someone who doesn’t understand conversations about Star Wars, okay.)


Have any of you picked up this book? What are your thoughts on it? Do you have any fall releases you’re itching to get to? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon!

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