Book Review: Turtles All the Way Down

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety, read Turtles All the Way Down.

There are also a lot of other reason is to read the book. It’s an amazing story of friendship, of growing up, of love in many different forms, of obsessions, compulsions, and finding a way to live in this world.

If you have read any of John Green’s other books — for instance, Searching for Alaska and of course The Fault in Our Stars — you know already that he is a brilliant writer. And he is again in his new book Turtles All the Way Down.

The book is about Aza Holmes, a teenage girl living in Indianapolis. It’s about her best friend Daisy, her mom, her car Harold and what it/he means to her, and Davis, the boy with whom she may be falling in love. It is also, both tangentially and overarchingly, about a tuatara.

Aza has OCD. She going to school, she spends time with her friends, and she hangs on by her fingernails, trying to control her symptoms and thoughts, rather than let them control her. Very often, that doesn’t work.

Both Aza and Daisy are trying to break out of the limits of their lives and a fantastic opportunity comes about when Davis’ billionaire father disappears, just before the police issues a search warrant on his house. A $100,000 reward is offered and Daisy gets the brilliant idea — she’s the kind of girl who has a lot of brilliant ideas — that they go visit Davis. They have an in, you see — he and Aza know each other from what they call ‘sad camp,” which they both attended when they lost a parent (her father, his mother).

That’s the story in a nutshell, but it is so much bigger than that. Each character is whole, someone with a personality, life, and feelings. Each character interacts with the others in a meaningful, often heartbreaking, and at times very funny, ways. This is so much more than the story — it is about real lives.
Quite amazing for a fictional story.

But it is much more than that. John Green himself has OCD and the way he describes it shows very clearly that it is written by someone who knows what it’s like from the inside. He writes about thoughts spirals that catch you up into an ever “tightening gyre,” squeezing you until you can’t breathe. He writes about the measures that a person can undertake to break out of that spiral — for Aza, it is using a fingernail to pierce a callus on another finger and when that doesn’t work, she moves on to rinsing her mouth with hand sanitizer. Even though I knew about that particular moment before reading the book, it was still a shock and the heartbreak when it happened.
The book itself is also a tightening gyre, squeezing closer and closer without you noticing it until you realize that you haven’t been breathing deeply for a while. The experience of reading it, as well as reading the descriptions of what it is like for Aza to be lost in a thought spiral, so accurately describes OCD and anxiety. I have a dollop of the former myself and much more of a dollop of the latter and cannot begin to say how much I appreciated having something so impossible to describe actually written down so that others can understand.

At a particular point in the book, it also triggered an anxiety attack. If you live with these conditions be aware that you may not want to read it late in the evening when emotions are closer to the surface.

John Green is a brilliant author. In writing Turtles All the Way Down, he has also become an advocate for mental illness. And because he is a very good with words, he has explained exactly why people who live with health conditions choose to speak out about what it’s like:

“I don’t want to be embarrassed about the fact that I have this health problem and I don’t want to shy away from it and maybe that inevitably makes me an advocate.”

Don’t put this book on a list of things you mean to read it eventually. Click this link and go get it now. And if you have a chance, read the audiobook narrated by Kate Rudd, who makes Aza and her thoughts and feelings come alive in such a profound way.


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