Amateur book review: ‘Turtles All The Way Down’

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is really poorly presented in the media. You probably think of a neat freak, or of detectives on TV shows with some lovable quirk, or your friend who says “I’m so OCD about…” But none of that is the reality. OCD expresses itself with stifling compulsions for some people, but for others, it’s mostly obsessions — thoughts that torture the person by refusing to go away. This is the type of OCD my sister has. So does John Green, and so does Turtles All The Way Down protagonist Aza Holmes, a 16-year-old living in Indianapolis who is trying to track down a missing billionaire with her best friend.

You and I might get lost in our heads. Aza gets trapped.

Green calls it a thought spiral, constantly growing tighter and tighter until you’re a prisoner inside it. As readers, we’re stuck with her. But everyone around Aza fails to understand, from her best friend, to her mom, to her love interest. And as she struggles with her OCD and looks for missing billionaire Davis Pickett, Aza wrestles with her identity. “I don’t control my thoughts,” she tells her therapist, “so they’re not really mine. I don’t decide if I’m sweating or get cancer or C. diff or whatever, so my body isn’t really mine. I don’t decide any of that — outside forces do. I’m a story they’re telling.” Then she adds, “I’m just not sure that I am, strictly speaking, real.” It’s unsettling. If none of this constructs our identity, what does? Green never gives us an answer.

The book is formatted like one giant thought spiral: Aza might start out only partially trapped, as we float between scenes in Aza’s life and Aza’s head, but by the end, she’s caught in a suffocating spin. And so are we. What makes the book so brilliant is that Green plants us in Aza’s mind better than any author I’ve read has done with a protagonist. We, like Aza, are trapped. As New York Times book reviewer Jennifer Senior writes, “If Aza can’t find relief, neither can we.”

Aza believes she’s fiction, because she doesn’t have control over her thoughts, her actions, her body, her life; she’s at the mercy of an unknown author. And she calls out to the author multiple times. At one point, she begs Green, “please just let me out. Whoever is authoring me, let me up out of this. Anything to be out of this.” My soul ached for her. I wanted to reach into the pages and pluck her out. I’ve read other books where authors do something like this — some ironic acknowledgement of the fictional nature of a piece, a conflict between protagonist and author — but I’ve never seen this literary device employed so brilliantly. As Aza questions her state of reality, we grapple with ours.

The whole book, I found myself juggling this juxtaposition of emotions: sorrow for Aza, and awe for John Green. This book is beautifully written. Somehow, all the metaphors and allusions and questions of pain and love and identity mesh seamlessly into this coming-of-age plot. I was so caught up in Aza’s plight that the intricacies of Green’s writing were an afterthought. A theme of the book is that it’s impossible to describe pain, because words aren’t adequate. But with his writing, Green proves himself wrong.

The greatest awe I felt as I closed the book was not for John Green. It was for my sister. I read this because I wanted to understand what she’s battled. I can’t imagine the pain Jennie’s been through because of her OCD, but I have seen the way she’s fought back, and the way she’s used her experiences to help others. She’s grown into a confident, fierce, deeply caring woman. Never discouraged, never without hope.

She’s a warrior.

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