Do we talk about mental health enough? Has it ever happened that you hesitated to mention to someone that you take/ or want to try therapy?
People perceive it as a taboo topic because they don’t know enough. One of the many ways to talk about mental health is through writing. And what is the best medium to speak about a sensitive topic, if not fiction?
Turtles All the Way Down by the famous John Greene essentially talks about lifelong friendships, the intimacy when an unexpected reunion occurs, and Star Wars fan fiction. The story begins with a runaway billionaire and the guarantee of a cash reward. But at its heart lies Aza Holmes, a young woman navigating daily existence within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts.
The Plot (No Spoilers):
At the center of Turtles, All the Way Down is Aza Holmes, aged 16, suffering from anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s unmanaged and evident in her everyday actions.
Based on general knowledge, people tend to associate O.C.D. with repetitive behaviors. And that’s partly true in Aza’s case as well: Her character has a self-inflicted wound on her finger, which she puts pressure on when anxious, and it continually reopens.
But her repetitive and intrusive thoughts are the actual torture. Aza can’t stop herself from worrying about the rumble in her gut or the breeding microbes therein. The possibility of contracting an infection, something as human as the prospect of sweating, not being able to pause, or touching someone sweating are some of the thoughts that spiral in her head. Her urge to put a hand sanitizer in her mouth to rinse herself off the bacteria is solid and dangerous. Sometimes the desire wins.
Readers spend long stretches listening to the thoughts and sometimes ramblings inside Aza’s head. The conflict between her rational self and compulsive thoughts often strikes her as interesting. The sensible part of her sees a therapist and fitfully takes medication. It also tries to talk her spiral ideas down.
“Please let me go,” Aza tells her unwanted thoughts at a particularly helpless moment. “I’ll do anything. I’ll stand down.”
Aza’s obsessive monologue that brings to front her inner thoughts is the heart of Turtles All the Way Down. The story is told in a strictly first-person perspective until Aza’s intrusive thoughts become overwhelming enough for her to split into other views. Hence, the reader is permanently trapped inside Aza’s head, where she fails time and again to redirect her thoughts away from the destructive cycles. While she’s kissing the quirky-John-Green-hero boy she likes, she compulsively thinks about the idea that the microbes on his tongue are infecting her body. Or, when trying to hang out with her best friend, she keeps getting distracted by the idea that the cut on her hand needs cleaning.
The Author’s Connection:
Aza’s anxiety and struggles are clearly a personal story for Green, who’s struggled with anxiety for most of his life. After the grand success of The Fault in Our Stars book and its adaptation, he found it so hard to write a follow-up that he went off his medication and fell into an anxiety spiral. This conflict is resolved in the story of Turtles All the Way Down because one of the things Aza learns throughout the plot is that abiding by your medication can actually help you. That is why Aza’s story feels genuine, exhausting, and authentic.
It is not a mainstream romance. Aza does not get better all of a sudden. The quirky, cute boy ‘hero’ does not save her. Her mental illness is not romanticized; it is presented in a raw form – scary and boring, and sometimes it isn’t very pleasant for her friends. The important thing is that she manages through life regardless.
The whole thing is heightened by Green’s understanding and observations that bring a universal truth of high school to the front. The relatability factor is relatively high in the book. Aza and her friend spend all their after-school time at an Applebee’s, eating their way through a coupon book – precisely how teenagers in a crappy midsize city do with limited pocket money and free time.
Green’s observations occasionally deviate into the mock depth that his critics make fun of. Aza and her love interest spend most of the time looking at the stars and having conversations. Like how when you’re looking at the night sky, you’re actually looking into the past that fictional teenagers have been having for at least 70 years or so; there’s a lot of quoting of angsty teen-penned poetry like: “You don’t know a father’s weight / Until it’s lifted.”
In other words, it’s more minor a sweet love ballad than it is a scream.
By the end of it, Greene seems to have decided: If Aza can’t find relief, neither can we.
So, if you’re looking for a book with excellent representation, a refreshing contemporary story, and beautiful quotes that will keep you thinking all night long, then Turtles All The Way Down is it!
One way to pick up this book, read it, and then discuss the thoughts it will fill you with is through conversations. So, if you do end up picking up this book, you can also think about discussing it in your next Book Club session because it is never enough when it comes to talking about mental health.
You can find Book Clubs to engage and community members here at Empowr Club.