Book Review: Turtles All the Way Down

January 24, 2018

John Green, the #1 bestselling author of The Fault in Our Stars, returned last October with a bang, earning accolades from every major media outlet and book reviewer from the New York Times to Seventeen magazine. 


I was in the O’Hare airport when I read this book, waiting for a delayed flight to Rochester. It was the tail end of the long journey back from my parents’ house in the mountains of northern Thailand and I had slept three hours out of the past forty-eight, so it’s a testament to the page-turning power of the book that I read it from cover to cover with only a single pause to check the departure time (pushed back yet another hour). Green knows how to tell a story and create compelling characters. 


Turtles All the Way Down tells the story of 16-year-old Aza and her friend Daisy, who get caught up in the mysterious disappearance of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett—and the hundred-thousand-dollar reward for information leading to his discovery. Pickett’s son is an old camp friend of Aza, and she struggles to balance her pursuit of the reward with her growing feelings for Davis. 


The mystery and the romance would make a solid novel on their own (somewhat unrealistic, but hey, fiction is an opportunity to fantasize). What sets this story apart in a league of its own is Aza’s struggle with anxiety and compulsive thoughts. The first-person storytelling takes the reader inside Aza’s tortured brain, allowing you to share the torture of being out of control of your own thoughts. It felt so true, so real. 


One of the most interesting questions posed by the story is what constitutes the core of human identity. As the germophobic protagonist points out, our bodies are host to and dependent on the trillions of bacteria that make up our microbiome. We can’t separate ourselves from them or live without them. Is all this bacteria “me”?  


What about our thoughts? If I have compulsive or intrusive thoughts that I can’t control, is that “me” or something that is hindering the real “me” from manifesting itself? What if I take medication that changes my thoughts? Is that changing who I am, or is it allowing the real “me” to emerge?  


Is there any part of us that exists independently, an unchangeable core? What is it that people love when they love us? 


Aza’s questions are thought-provoking, but ultimately it’s not the intellectual puzzle that makes this book so compelling; rather it’s the sense of identifying with someone whose experience of life is so different from my own.  Aza’s story provokes understanding, a sense of “Ah, so that’s what it feels like.”  


Is this really what it feels like? Obviously the author is not a 16-year-old girl who compulsively drinks hand sanitizer when she kisses a boy; he may have gotten some things wrong. But he opened my eyes enough to feel greater compassion for people who feel trapped in their own minds. And that’s a good place to start. 



Verdict: Highly recommend 


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