Aza has a hard time getting out of her head. Worse yet, she’s beginning to wonder if she’s really here at all. For all the choice she feels she has, she might as well be fictional. “Your life is a story told about you,” she muses at the beginning of John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down, “not one that you tell.” (1)
Of course, sixteen-year-old Aza is fictional, but the invasive thoughts she experiences are the plight of many a person with obsessive compulsive disorder–thoughts that make Aza think that she is destined to be overrun by Clostridium difficile, a sometimes fatal collection of bacteria. To stave off this dread possibility Aza has developed a regular routine of opening a small wound on her finger, letting it bleed, surveying the surrounding skin for infection, and slathering the spot with anti-bacterial hand sanitizer. Which she will also drink sometimes to get at the bacteria in her mouth and gut. None of which will keep her from going back to the C. diff. article on Wikipedia that feeds her anxiety. And all of which leaves her feeling like she’s not in control of herself and not really here.
You might think a book about such things would be exhausting to read. But John Green, who has dealt with “invasives” his whole life has pulled off the trick of making Aza fascinating even though she is exhausted herself. As Green described the condition in a recent NPR interview, “It starts out with one little thought, and then slowly that becomes the only thought that you’re able to have…It’s like there’s an invasive weed that just spreads out of control.”
When Aza is able to be present to her world, she has a lot of interesting relationships to nurture her. Aza’s father has died, but her mother is interested and supportive, if a little overprotective and anxious for her daughter. Aza’s best friend Daisy is artsy and vibrant but also occasionally annoyed with what she perceives as Aza’s self-obsession. Daisy’s passion is writing inter-species romance fan fiction in the Star Wars universe and she works out some of her frustrations with Aza there.
Then there’s Davis, eldest son of the billionaire Russell Pickett. When the father disappears in the midst of growing clouds of scandal, Aza renews a relationship with the teenaged Davis that had begun in ‘Sad Camp,’ a program for children who have lost a parent. Their relationship includes art, friendship, astronomy, poetry, and potential romance, despite the terror that kissing presents for Aza. And overarching everything is the mystery of where Pickett has gone, a mystery that Daisy and Aza are sleuthing in their spare time.
Well, perhaps that’s not true. What’s really overarching everything is life, the universe, and everything. There’s the question of what there really is and who we really are. Like every young person, Aza is trying to find herself but with the added anxiety that there may be no self to find. “When I look into myself,” she confesses to Daisy, “there’s no actual me—just a bunch of thoughts and behaviors and circumstances. And a lot of them don’t feel like they’re mine…when I look for the, like, Real Me, I never find it.” (244)
Like every young person, Aza is trying to find herself but with the added anxiety that there may be no self to find.
There’s no real happy ending here, (though it is a very satisfying ending), because these big questions are not easy to answer and conditions like OCD don’t just evaporate because you come to a big revelation. But there is growth and reconciliation and acceptance and the promise of a frame within which to live a good and rich life.
This is a book that many people will read and believe that John Green knows them because he has written something recognizably human. Young adults will see themselves in the language, the settings, and the cultural references, but also in the stressed relationships of the characters. Older readers will nod their heads at the things that have not and do not change about coming of age. And we can all hope to find even some of the beauty illuminated by this excellent book.