I absolutely love John Green’s narrative voice: no matter how inherently unappealing his subject matter might be (and often it is), he still hooks me within the first paragraph. I plowed through Paper Towns and The Fault in Our Stars just as I did through this one—yet if the same stories had been written by a different author, I probably wouldn’t have finished any of them. (The Fault in Our Stars, for instance, is a story about teenagers who are dying of cancer, yet trying to live what time they have left to the fullest. Utterly maudlin, and I don’t do sad, as a general rule. But Green’s writing is so compelling and his characters so quirky and memorable that I just couldn’t put it down. Paper Towns wasn’t as devastating, but it wasn’t exactly happy either.) I’m starting to sense a theme for him: if you’re looking for a “happily ever after” (mild spoiler alert), Turtles All the Way Down won’t give it to you either. Green seems to go for the bittersweet, dark-cloud-with-a-silver-lining kind of endings.
The story follows high school senior Aza Holmes (“Holmesy” to her best friend Daisy), whose defining characteristic is her OCD and anxiety disorder. She is, specifically, obsessed with microbial infection and death (and even more specifically, infection with clostridia difficile, or C. Diff—even though she knows mountains upon mountains of facts that ought to convince her how unlikely this is). The main point of the story seemed to be to raise awareness about mental illness, as over and over again Aza says that she’s never going to “un-have” this, she’s never not going to be sick, despite regular trips to her therapist, medication that doesn’t work for her, and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). As a naturopathic doctor, I kept thinking, man, this girl has some serious dopamine dominance. She needs genetic testing and neurotransmitter balancing… She doesn’t have to live like that. She’s not condemned to live in the hell of her obsessive thinking for the rest of her life—yet at the end of the book, the audiobook made the announcement, “If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness…” and then gave information about where they can get help. Even though the whole point of the book was that there is no help, not truly. I found that to be pretty bleak, though I was fascinated by a fight Aza has with Daisy about how selfish Daisy thinks Aza is: because of her illness, Aza can’t focus on anyone but herself. It was very psychologically astute, I thought, and well-rounded, to show not only Aza’s experience being stuck in her own thought spirals, but also how this looks on the outside to those who love her.
But you can’t have a story that’s entirely about a character’s ordinary life experience—something has to happen, too. In this case, the primary plot is that Aza finds out about the disappearance of the billionaire father of a boy named Davis whom she’d met years earlier. There’s a reward of $100K for anybody with information about where he might have gone. Aza and Daisy look Davis up, and Aza and Davis begin a semi-romance that isn’t ever fully defined. I loved the fact that Davis isn’t portrayed as just a spoiled rich kid—he’s very nuanced. His mom died years earlier and now his father is gone too, and he’s just lonely. He finally gives Aza the reward money even though he asks her not to share anything she might learn about his father’s whereabouts—just because he doesn’t want to have to wonder whether she’s hanging around for the money, or because she actually wants to be with him. When Aza splits the money with Daisy, the tensions that arise between the girls because of the newfound windfall is also quite insightful. Most novels will go with the stereotypical “corruption of wealth” theme in such a circumstance, but real life is usually more complex, and Green captures this well. Money does change people, but it’s often not so cut-and-dry as simple greed.
Green’s characters are still caricatures in some ways, and I’m starting to think he doesn’t think it’s possible to write an uplifting ending without it coming off cheesy. So even the bittersweetness of his endings feels a little artificial, like it’s more reflective of his own life philosophy than how things might actually turn out for the characters he’s created. But in the nuances of his characters’ interpersonal relationships, he absolutely nails it. His books are a terrific read (or listen) for an author interested in character study.
My rating: ****
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