by Sarah Pennington
Contrary to what its title might lead you to believe, “Turtles All the Way Down,” the latest novel by bestselling author John Green, contains only three mentions of turtles. And, despite what its blurb and marketing might suggest, it isn’t really a detective story, though it does contain a mystery.
Rather, “Turtles All the Way Down” is the story of Aza, a young woman who feels trapped in her own head, and Davis, a young man whose father was absent long before he went missing, and their attempts to cope with life and loss.
“Turtles,” although not a mystery, begins with one: the disappearance of Russell Pickett, local billionaire. And though Aza and her best friend Daisy start out looking for clues to what happened, they find instead an unexpected friendship with Pickett’s son and questions about identity, love, and pain.
Overall, “Turtles” is a very real book, but not in a gritty way. Reality is full of joy and sadness, wonder and pain, success and failure, and that’s exactly what readers will find in this novel.
Aza, Davis, Daisy, and the rest of the story’s cast are generally good people (with the exception of Russell Pickett, who can be objectively categorized as a complete jerk and a horrible father). However, they’re also broken, with shattered edges that cut people around them even when they don’t intend harm and struggles that can’t be easily solved.
Highlighted among these struggles is Aza’s daily battle with her own thoughts. John Green draws on his own experience to realistically portray life with OCD, to make readers feel what it’s like to be pulled into a thought spiral that just keeps tightening, to have even moments of joy corrupted by a fear that you can’t escape, to feel so out of control of your own life that you wonder if you’re real.
In addition, Green deconstructs the idea that OCD can be magically cured by some life change— romance, purpose, sudden realization of truth— calling out this trope in one particularly powerful passage and demonstrating its unrealities throughout the novel.
As stated at the beginning of this review, “Turtles” is not a detective novel. It focuses on the characters, their internal struggles, and the interpersonal conflicts those struggles cause.
That said, there is still a mystery to be solved— or not solved, as some characters may prefer— and the author handles it well, including just the right amount of buildup and resolution to be satisfying. Not every question is answered in the end, but the right questions are.
All that said, “Turtles All the Way Down” is not a perfect novel. In particular, readers may feel uncomfortable with Aza and Daisy’s friendship. The pair refer to themselves as, and usually seem to be, best friends, but readers will also note an undercurrent of resentment which, unsurprisingly, blows up before the book’s end.
While the author does resolve this conflict, the way he does so may not totally satisfy all readers. In some ways, the matter seems to have been partially swept under the rug rather than being fully forgiven.
Despite this flaw and one or two very minor issues, “Turtles All the Way Down” is an excellent book. Fans of John Green’s other novels will love this one, and those who’ve never encountered him before will find in “Turtles” a great first step into his work. Even bookworms who prefer genres other than contemporary will find much to appreciate in this story, with its deep themes and its powerful portrayals of OCD and general humanity.
Sarah Pennington is a sophomore Professional Writing and Information Design major and an Arts and Entertainment reporter for Cedars. She loves chai tea and dragons and is perpetually either reading or writing a book.