Look, I love John Green. As far as I can tell, he’s a great human and a decent writer. Plus, disclaimer: I’ve taught Looking for Alaska in sophomore honors English for almost 10 years.
And Turtles All the Way Down is a fine book in some regards. The portrayal of mental illness is top flight, right up there with Schusterman’s Challenger Deep. It puts readers who do not live with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in the mind and heart of someone who does. It’s real and terrifying. For that alone, Green deserves praise.
Plus, the relationships are both realistic and aspirational. The romance between Aza and Davis is handled sensitively and features consent. The best friend conflict is a little undercooked and over too quickly, but as a result, it’s actually one of the more realistic elements of the story–and one that ties directly to the portrayal of mental illness. Daisy interrogates Aza’s privilege to the point that she’s suggesting OCD is a luxury item. It’s not, and I appreciate that Green raises the spectre of that question, too often posed to those living with mental illness1.
However, the dialogue™ and the characters™ are a little too polished, like holding a handful of tumbled rocks.
The perfected form of a teenager.
And those perfected teenagers are far too familiar from his other work: they share the extensive philosophical concerns they always do, the relational tone of Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns, and the rewriting-disease narrative of The Fault in Our Stars.
But does any of that matter? It was nice to be in Green’s universe again, where this one truth always prevails: We are the stories we tell about ourselves.
1 Another grace note worth mentioning is the short, quasi-elegaic flash forward at the end of the novel. Many readers–myself included–will wonder: is that Green or Aza? The book is dedicated to Green’s children, Henry and Alice, and it closes with a sort of apology to Aza’s (?) future children and an expression of gratitude to lifelong friends.