Turtles All the Way Down by J. Green
Green, John. Turtles All the Way Down. Dutton Books, 2017.
Turtles All the Way Down ticks many boxes; it has friendship, mystery, and romance. Above all, it is the coming-of-age story of a girl struggling with mental illness.
Sixteen-year-old Ava Holmes lives within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts. When billionaire Russell Pickett goes missing under suspicious circumstances, Ava and her “Best and Most Fearless Friend,” Daisy, investigate in the hope of pocketing the reward money. Along the way, Ava renews her childhood friendship with Russell’s son, Davis, and their relationship turns romantic as the two teens explore love and their burgeoning sexuality. Yet these elements of typical YA are filtered through the lens of Ava’s mental illness and her daily struggle with profound anxiety, obsessive thinking, and intrusive thoughts. Ava uses the metaphor of an ever-tightening spiral to conceptualize her obsessive thought patterns. The mystery and the romance plotlines are continuously sidelined by Ava’s ongoing struggle with her own mind. Ava’s illness threatens her relationship with Davis, her friendship with Daisy, and, eventually, her life.
John Green is a YouTube personality and an award-winning author, best known for The Fault in Our Stars (2012). This novel fits the pattern of Green’s previous works, which feature poignantly relatable teenagers seeking to understand their place in the world. But in Turtles All the Way Down, Green uses the structure of the YA novel to depict the mental illness that has affected his life since childhood. Readers familiar with Green’s virtual presence will hear echoes of his voice in Ava’s. The novel carries the weight of authenticity, as neither Ava nor the reader can find relief from the obsessive thought spirals. By bringing the reader into Ava’s head, Green bridges the gap between language and Ava’s (and his own) abstract experiences. Ava’s chronic mental illness is not magic-ed away, and the novel’s ending is plausible and moving in its truthfulness.
A few elements in the novel feel forced. The climax, for instance, seems to happen simply because the structure of the novel requires one. However, Ava’s daily struggle living with her obsessive thoughts is painfully authentic. Though Green writes through the eyes of a teenage girl, his stream-of-consciousness prose may be easily understood by a wide variety of readers. This novel is a stark, honest, and accessible portrayal of living with mental illness. It is a difficult, astonishing read that is highly recommended for those seeking to understand mental illnesses on a personal level.
Highly recommended: 4 out of 4 stars
Reviewer: Caitlin Ratcliffe
Caitlin Ratcliffe is an MLIS candidate at the University of Alberta. She completed her Bachelor of Arts with a double major in English and History at the University of Lethbridge. When not studying, she enjoys playing soccer and reading sci-fi, fantasy, and young adult fiction.
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