When I first picked up John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down, it was for two reasons. First, turtles are my favorite animal, and no book with them in the title could do them wrong, right? And second, out of a sense of fairness, I supposed I’d give John another chance.
Readers of John Green (and honestly most authors, I’ve come to realize) tend to either love or hate his work. After trying to hop onto the bandwagon of The Fault in Our Stars and promptly falling off, and again after Looking for Alaska, I decided to dust off my bruised limbs and try once more. The old baseball cliche is true for a reason.
And it seemed interesting! The back cover told me that the book held so much promise! Tell me you can’t read “Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate” and not be intrigued!
I read it. I was intrigued. And then I read the rest of the book.
First, the good:
I think that John Green does an excellent job portraying mental illness here. The book, written in first-person narration from Aza’s perspective, gives readers an intimate glimpse into the “ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts” (thank you, back cover). Her obsession with the bacteria Clostridium difficile was absurdly specific and off-putting in its intensity in the first chapter, and yet I feel that those qualities were justified. This is not a book that glorifies mental illness. It shows the gruesome reality of opening and reopening and reopening a cut on your finger in order to disinfect it, its writing portrays the confusing and inescapable tangents of one’s inner thoughts, and its readers (or at least this reader) empathize with the inevitability of the escalation throughout the book.
That being said, we now move on to the negative, in which I have two main complaints.
First, what is the plot? I was led to believe that this would be along the lines of action and thriller, following the footsteps of some of my favorite dramatic TV shows. A missing billionaire? A huge monetary reward? I assumed the characters would say “let’s get out of dodge, get on the pursuit, and get our reward!” but no, that would be too much to expect of a John Green book. Finding Russell Pickett becomes not a side plot, not something put on the back burner, but something buried in your closet and once a year when you do spring cleaning, you find it, give a small exclamation of contentment, and promptly shove it back in to be forgotten and found again some other time. His son, Davis, just… gives Aza the money, not even a third into the book, which he casually pulls out from cereal boxes. The book focuses more on Aza’s mental struggles, which is valid, but it should not be marketed as an intense search or adventure.
I firmly believe that whoever wrote the back cover material should be fired… or promoted. After all, it was effective in persuading me to buy the book, but boy was it misleading.
My second grievance is this: it was just so weird. In my experience, John Green books cross the line into just a bit too odd. Aza’s best friend writes Chewbacca fanfiction. (Also, Aza’s name?) There’s an absurd emphasis on a tuatara. Has anyone heard of a tuatara before reading this book? I hadn’t. Aza and Daisy get to Davis’s house via canoe. Davis has a secret blog where he writes Deep Angsty Teenager Thoughts With Poetry and About Aza But Of Course Never Mentions Her By Name. The turtles all the way down metaphor, when it was shoehorned into the book, felt out of place and forced. Have I mentioned an underground art gallery in a sewer, open for one night only? The recurring visits to Applebee’s where they pay with coupons? I can handle one of these ideas, but all of them mashed together in one book is just a recipe for an unsatisfied, weirded-out reader.
Overall, I cannot say that it’s thumbs all the way down for this book, but I probably won’t be reading it again. John Green? This was strike number three for me.
★★☆☆☆ (two out of five stars)