John Green is not just an award winning, New York Times Bestselling author. With seven published novels and a YouTube empire, Green has established himself as one of the most popular voices in today’s fiction, especially among young readers. He should be praised not only for his writing but for how he has helped encourage a new generation of readers. His beloved novel “The Fault in Our Stars” (TFIOS) is a defining piece of Young Adult (YA) literature that beautifully addresses some of life’s most unimaginable tragedies with honesty, humor and grace instead of melodramatics and clichés. It can also be enjoyed by readers of all ages, which is a test most YA novels cannot pass. At their heart, all of Green’s works embody the same essential message: You are not alone, even if you have completely convinced yourself otherwise. This hopeful message is something Green returns to in his latest novel, “Turtles All the Way Down” (TATWD).
The story of “TATWD” begins as teenage girl, Aza, decides to become an amateur detective while still juggling the hats of daughter, friend and student. Her life is not perfect but she has an amazing car named Harold, who used to belong to her late father, and a quirky best friend, Daisy, who always has her back. With a $100,000 reward on the line, Aza sets out to find the local fugitive billionaire, Russell Pickett, who is missing, or at least a good enough tip to win her the cash. Luckily for Aza, she kind of had a “thing” with Pickett’s son, Davis, when they were kids at a camp for children with a least one dead parent. Unfortunately for Aza, she has not really talked to Davis in years.
Does it make Aza a bad person if her reunion with Davis is fueled by her desire to use him to earn the reward for information about his missing father? The reader is asked to help its narrator evaluate herself often, which is sometimes a challenging task. We only know what Aza chooses to tell us about herself and she, like many of us, is her own worst critic. There are even times where she is convinced that she is not a real human being but rather a fictional character. This storyline is a bit meta, but serves as an effective metaphor for how life with a mental illness makes you feel as if you have no control over your life. Sometimes it is a bit exhausting to be in her head as she bounces around from one seemingly random topic to another; however, her Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and anxiety are not the reason she is a challenge to navigate. The treatment of mental illness in “TATWD” is done lovingly and authentically by Green, just as he did with cancer and the death of a child/loved one in “TFIOS.”
One of his greatest qualities as a writer is that Green never exploits his character’s hardships. Aza, in particular, is sometimes a challenging narrator to get to know because “TATWD” focuses less on the mystery of Russell Pickett’s disappearance and more on the mysteries Aza has within herself. The way in which she describes how she lives with her OCD and anxiety produces some of the most beautiful lines in the book. However, it is disruptive to the narrative that her mind operates at only two speeds: hyper focus and neglect. It is sometimes hard to differentiate what information is trivial, vital, reality or paranoia. But perhaps this is what Green has planned all along. The purpose of the novel may never have been to solve a disappearance but rather to help an audience compassionately strive to understand someone who feels as if they, themselves, are disappearing in illness.
Green is particularly gifted in how he completely emerges the audience into the thoughts of his narrator and he never breaks character. Even when they say odd things, they never come off that way when in the minds and mouths of his heroes and heroines. They have a trademark wisdom that makes them good friends to other characters and readers. These characters are likable but consider themselves to be more of an outcast than they are. His narrators are vastly intelligent and complex young adults with expressive and expansive vocabularies that describe many relatable feels in a way you wish you had thought of. They are masters of, what some might consider, trivial knowledge, especially famous quotes, and somehow always benefit from their knowledge. Highly obsessive, these narrators are always in pursuit of a specific person who is either gone or hard to reach. Not to mention, there is always an existential crisis and a love interest who is flawed but pure in heart. For all of these reasons and more, Aza Holmes of “TATWD” is a quintessential Green narrator. However, that is why the book does not work. Green has relied on the same plot line in all of his novels he has written in his career.
As wonderful as all of these characters have been, it is time for Green to challenge and change the formula. He is too good of a storyteller to keep cranking out different versions of the same tale. With “TFIOS” becoming an international phenomenon, “TATWD,” which is the first to succeed “TFIOS,” had big shoes to fill. Even if Aza still had signature Green character traits, the fact that she is searching for someone on the surface takes away from how special she is. Had the novel been written earlier in his career or by another author, it would not have been so predictable. This is not to say “TATWD” is not a nice world to visit, though. Aza is worth getting know, despite the work it takes. Because of this, “TATWD” is very impactful in how it teaches readers to look at someone like Aza with compassion and a newfound understanding, even if they cannot relate to her themselves. My advice to Green: Down with the formula.