Turtles All the Way Down is a clever, poignant, and – most-importantly – nuanced narrative about living with mental illness. The plot itself, like most of John Green’s novels, hedges into the absurd, but the outlandish misadventures serve as a reminder that mental illness does not vanish in the face of love, money, or immortal dinosaurs. The protagonist lives with a severe obsessive-compulsive disorder that plays out vividly against the back-drop of her attempts to solve the mystery of a local billionaire’s disappearance. Aza Holmes’ anxiety is never used to enhance her detective abilities or romanticized in any other way. Instead, the reader experiences the tightening thought-spirals of Aza’s anxiety in all their complexity, and the effect that these have on her relationships.

This book was difficult for me to read because of how real Aza’s anxiety felt. It heightened my own obsessive-compulsive tendencies as I found myself absorbed in the emotional toll of the story. Even so, I wish that I had had such a thoughtful exploration of anxiety when I was younger. TATWD might have helped me make sense of my own mental illness as a teenager. Now, I would recommend this book to teenagers and adults alike with the caveat that it is sometimes difficult to experience another person’s mental illness in such a raw form.

The book does belabor some points and repeats themes that readers of Green’s other work will likely recognize. However, the only real criticism I have is that the topic of psychotropic drugs is not given the kind of complex conversation for which I would have hoped. Aza has her own feelings about taking medication, which are valid and realistic, but Green allows the character’s opinion to speak as an absolute, which I fear will be interpreted as a proxy for Green’s own feelings and in turn be taken as advice because of his influential presence. Like any treatment, the results of psychotropic medications will vary for individuals and I would have liked to hear more from competing viewpoints.

Ultimately, this is a story that deals with mental health on a personal, realistic level. The book does not try to offer any answers, and the happiness of its ending can be left to interpretation, but it does come with several messages of hope. “Your now is not your forever,” Aza says, in the midst of her struggles. And that is a real sort of optimism.

(At the beginning of November 2017, John Green and his brother Hank Green had a sale donating the profits from TATWD posters to NAMI! You can listen to John Green discuss his own mental health here)

Review by Gideon C. Elliott