Not all John Green novels are created equal. In Turtles All the Way Down, we are immersed in the portrait of a young woman deep in the throes of mental illness. Like Green himself, Aza has OCD, and it has completely taken over her life. She lives in constant fear of C. difficile colitis and other infections, a terrible mismatch with her compulsion to keep opening a wound on her finger. Aza’s life is something that happens around the focal point of her obsessive thoughts, a perspective that is instantly recognizable to anyone who has been through major mental health trauma.
The strength of this novel is not in its over-the-top plot (which includes one hundred thousand dollars pulled out of a cereal box), but in Aza’s mental illness and the very real intimate details of her life. Aza’s mother has good intentions and has taken a great step in helping Aza by making sure she goes to a psychiatrist, but her mother is constantly saying something insensitive or unhelpful; for instance, saying that Aza’s deceased father’s constant “worrying” was exhausting, when Aza is in a near-constant state of anxiety.
“You’re not anxious?” she asked. At some point, Dr. Singh had told Mom not to ask if I was feeling anxious, so she’d stopped phrasing it as a direct question.”
Tension In Aza And Daisy’s Friendship
There’s a fair amount of tension in Aza’s friendship with Daisy. Their friendship began before Aza’s onset of symptoms, and Daisy sometimes operates in a caretaker role. They have several large confrontations during the novel: Daisy rants about how Aza knows nothing about her life while Aza quietly tries to show that she really does know some things; Daisy tells Aza that another friend thinks she’s like mustard – a little bit is great, but a lot is a lot; Daisy writes fan fiction with a character based on Aza who’s always ruining things because of her anxiety.
“‘You’re so stuck in your head,’ she continued. ‘It’s like you genuinely can’t think about anyone else.’
I felt like I was getting smaller.
‘I’m sorry, Holmesy, I shouldn’t say that. It’s just frustrating sometimes.’
When I didn’t respond, she kept talking. ‘I don’t mean that you’re a bad friend or anything. But you’re slightly tortured, and the way you’re tortured is sometimes also painful for, like, everyone around you.'”
This tension – having the support of people who love her, but also feeling their frustrations and lack of understanding about her condition – will probably feel very familiar to anyone living with a chronic illness.
Recreating The Spiral Of A Panic Attack For Readers
Green also does an excellent job of recreating the spiral into a panic attack in stressful internal back-and-forths between Aza and her OCD; one scene in particular, when Aza is in the hospital and ends up frantically eating hand sanitizer foam, gave me a little bit of flashbacks of my own panic attacks. (As a general note, people with a history of panic attacks or OCD, especially contamination OCD, may have strong responses to the content of this novel.)
This isn’t a book where the protagonist magically recovers by the end. Aza deals with very real consequences of having a debilitating illness, including the end of her relationship with Davis. But it’s not all bad; Aza’s relationship with Daisy evolves through their confrontations into something more beneficial to both of them, and Aza is forced to start taking her illness more seriously with the help of an unbelievably supportive psychiatrist. (I’ve never had a mental health professional come see me when I’ve been hospitalized, but Aza’s doctor checks in on her in person multiple times.)
Don’t read Turtles All the Way Down expecting a great plot or the inspiring story of someone overcoming a terrible illness; come for the realism of Aza’s OCD and stay for the difficult wins in her relationship with Daisy.
About The Author:
Carling Mars (she/her) is a queer, genderqueer, mentally ill, disabled person (those last two go together) living in Salt Lake City with her wife, a rabbit, and a cat. Her book, feeling things in public places, is available online from Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter @ohmycarling for more reviews and short fiction pieces.