The Fault in Our Stars, Will Grayson, Will Grayson, Paper Towns, and Looking for Alaska are radiant novels by John Green. His newest YA, Turtles All The Way Down, is like a vibrantly colored Hubble photograph of a misty galaxy spiraling above us, complete with the black hole every galaxy contains.
The question for Aza Holmes, the sixteen-year-old protagonist, is whether to let herself spiral inward toward the darkness within her mind or to stream outward along the ever enlarging spiral. Her anxiety issues and OCD are offset by her bond with lifelong best friend Daisy. Friendships of depth and warmth populate this story and when Daisy proposes that she and Aza try to solve the mystery of the missing local billionaire in order to claim a $100,000 reward, Aza reconnects with the absent man’s son Davis. Aza and Davis met years ago at “Sad Camp”, a retreat for kids who have lost a parent: Aza her father, Davis his mother. Aza hurts herself and feels that her inner self is not actually real, though her body is. Davis clings to a worn Ironman figure and doubts that people see him for himself rather than for the affluence he is surrounded by.
Daisy and Aza explore one clue after another as they become more deeply involved with probable orphans Davis and his younger brother Noah and wrestle with the question of whether they should even try to find the complicated missing father, Russell Pickett, who is wanted by the police for his questionable business practices. Romantic relationships begin to blossom between Daisy and Mychal, the two girls’ artistic friend, as well as sparks forming between Davis and Asa. The fascinating conversations and interests of these characters are philosophical, intelligent and involve astronomy, biology, architecture, poetry and fine art. Davis once talked his father into buying art by Kerry James Marshall. One of the many paintings by famous artists on the walls at the Pickett mansion is a spiral by the artist Raymond Pettibon. Spirals recur throughout the novel as a metaphor for Aza’s state of mind, a spiral that becomes continually smaller and tighter as it curves inward until her mind takes over. She eventually recovers, but may never truly escape the feeling that she is “a lie that I’m whispering to myself.” The surprising finale to the rich and beautiful ride of this story’s arc is surprising, appropriate, and completely believable.
What makes this novel so compelling?
- The characters. They are quirky, imperfect, and richly human, therefore completely likeable. Aza is beautiful, but emotionally flawed. For years she has pierced her thumbnail into the pad of her middle finger until she breaks the skin and it bleeds, then obsessively sanitizes the wound to keep the ever present germs at bay. She obsesses about the bacteria within her body and when Davis kisses her, she loves it, but is paranoid about the germs he has imposed on her. Davis likes to lie on his back in one of his family’s golf sand traps where he analyzes the stars and planets above. Daisy is becoming famous for the Star Wars fan fiction she writes. Davis’ father is so wealthy that on their property is a zoologist charged with caring for and doing research about the tuatara, a lizard-like animal directly descended from dinosaurs and which resides in the glass building by the family pool. The elusive Mr. Pettibon has decreed that upon his death his entire estate will go to Tua the tuatara. None for his children. Aza’s therapist is characterized in part by what is not on her office walls. No paintings, no diplomas, nothing save one generic image of a man with a fishing net over his shoulder.
- The attitudes and dialogue. The teens are good people who sound adult, cynical, humorous, or ironic, depending. They say things like, “adults think they’re wielding power, but really power is wielding them.” And, “My consciousness felt like a camera with a dirty lens.” On whether Mychal is hot or not, “He’s in that vast boy middle.” There are texting exchanges and facetime sessions in which things of significance and passages of silence are conveyed.
- Realism – Aza’s obsessive personality issues and shaky sanity are effectively portrayed with depth and compassion. Aza and Daisy have to wait in line to get through the metal detectors at their school. Daisy works at Chucky Cheese and hates the infernal costume she has to wear sometimes. The estate where Davis lives has a home theater with fifteen foot ceilings and rows of stadium-seating recliners accessed by a secret door. There’s also the golf course, security guard, cook/housekeeper and private zoologist. Aza’s car, dubbed Harold, had been her father’s and is talked about as though it is sentient. Embarrassing things happen, just like in real life.
- Use of metaphors – References to spirals repeatedly crop up in parallel with the reader’s experiencing the spiraling interior life that Aza endures. When Aza reflects on the spiritual connection between her mother and herself, she recalls something Dr. Singh, her therapist, had explained. “If you have a perfectly tuned guitar and a perfectly tuned violin in the same room, and you pluck the D string of the guitar, then all the way across the room, the D string on the violin will also vibrate.” Also, the myth behind the title.
- Story arc – The underlying mystery of Russell Pickett’s disappearance is in parallel with Aza’s own journey of self discovery. Both are resolved in surprising, yet believable ways.
Turtles All the Way Down was six years in the making and John Green received input, research help and encouragement from a long list of talented people, including Rainbow Rowell. According to the Acknowledgements, he writes of Aza’s OCD and mental illness issues from his personal experience.
This is a book that needed to be written and will richly reward its readers. The New York Times reviewer considered it to be dark, but in reality it is simply truthful.