Book title: Turtles all the way down
Author: John Green
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Narrative: First person
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Aza is sixteen years old and suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder. She sometimes feels like a prisoner in her own head, and she is seriously questioning whether she has any power over her own life at all. As far as Aza is concerned, her best friend Daisy is like the main character of the movie, and Aza is just the side kick. Their relationship is to a great extent Daisy talking and Aza listening, or perhaps more accurately, thinking.
When billionaire entrepreneur Russel Davis Pickett Sr. is reported missing, Aza and Daisy gets involved in investigating the disappearance, on the hunt for a hundred thousand dollar reward. The first step in finding the truth is Aza resuming a lost friendship with Mr. Pickett's son Davis. And meeting a tuatara.
But let's be honest – even though that's the overall plot, it's not really what the book is about. Not really.
I loved how raw the depiction of Aza's mental health issues were in this book. The parts where Aza loses control of her thoughts were sometimes difficult to read, but they were honest, and being an angsty person myself I could definitely relate to some of the logic her mind tries to create for her in those moments. It felt true, and truth is sometimes uncomfortable. I also very much liked the fact that Aza is seeing a psychiatrist and taking medication, because if there is one thing that needs to become less of a taboo, it is asking for help.
This books deals with many interesting themes and concepts, such as the self, whether there is such a thing as a singular self, a core I, that is independent and unattached from all outside influence. It deals with the theme of friendship and family; whether it is fine to love someone and at the same time dislike that person, and whether you can help someone else while at the same time not being able to help yourself. It talks about letting go, of missing things and people, of how it is so incredibly sad, and still okay.
The disappearance mystery in this book is really a secondary plot. It is interesting, and it makes you wonder what happened, but it is obvious a hundred pages in that it is not the main focus of this story. We get to see the mystery unfold through Aza's mind, mirrored through her sometimes fuzzy and obsessive thoughts. Just as we get to see all the characters, Davis, Daisy, Mychal, Aza's mother, Aza's car Harold and the tuatara Tua, through the lens of Aza's mind. A mind that is sometimes unstable, sometimes unreliable, but always trying its best to do the right thing.
I feel like we are moving in the right direction with the depiction of mental health issues in popular culture. Even though it has been around in literature for a long time, it has been associated with scary and dangerous characters. It is still taboo to actually admit that you have mental health issues, and to seek help, and therefore this book is important. (Minor spoiler coming up. But not really.) I really feel like the ending of this book was perfect and very helpful in terms of normalizing and defusing the image of mental health issues. There was no magic wand waving and rose tint on the mental health situation, but an understanding that mental health issues is something a person lives with, and learns to deal with, and perhaps in the future gets better from, or even gets completely free from. But it's not certain, and it's not necessary to live a good life.
I found the first third of the book a tad slow. The beginning of the book gave me the impression that we were in for a big mystery adventure, but the pace of the plot didn't match that. When letting go of the idea that the mystery was the main focus of the story, I realized that the story was so much more. The two remaining thirds I practically inhaled in one breath. I liked how Aza is multifaceted; there were moments where you thought “Come on, Aza, get your shit together!” and other moments when you just wanted to give her a hug. I think that John Green did a great job at depicting mental health problems in a not romanticizing way but also in a non-blaming way. The mystery was realistically mysterious, and the whole thing was just a joy to read. My copy has about a dozen folded pages to help me remember all the beautiful and touching quotes that I will be reading over and over again. 5 out of 5 stars.