Love In The Time Of Stomach Bacteria

Bailey Bujnosek writes about John Green's seventh novel, Turtles All The Way Down.

John Green. Turtles All The Way Down. 2017. 304 pages. $12.28. ISBN: 0525555366.

Turtles All The Way Down, John Green’s seventh novel, focuses on both a missing person and sixteen-year-old Aza Holmes, a teen struggling with mental illness.

The book’s strength is also its weakness: a complex character study of Aza and her challenges is made subplot to the mystery of a missing billionaire, as well as a budding romance between Aza and the billionaire’s son, Davis. The portrayal of anxiety and OCD in Turtles is well-done, but it gets overshadowed by the flimsy mystery of the missing man which takes up the first three-quarters of the book.

This is the sort of book you’d expect from John Green, as much of his work focuses on romance. His most popular novel, The Fault In Our Stars, follows two teens whose struggle with cancer draws them together. But despite a history of similar plots in Green’s past, Aza’s story feels original. Her character’s voice is shaped by a unique struggle to find out who she is, while often feeling out of control of her emotions.  

Aza meets Davis Pickett at a camp intended for children dealing with grief from the death of a parent, as they both lost a parent at a young age. The duo is drawn together by their mutual loss, as well as an unspoken understanding between them referred to as “seeing the same sky.” But the romance in this book is not nearly as sappy as Green’s previous works. For example, every time Aza and Davis make out, Aza falls into a “thought spiral” about how she’s going to get a bacterial infection called C. Diff—which leads to inflammation of the colon and potential death—if she continues exposing herself to Davis’s germs.

Aza’s self-destructive coping methods, such as compulsively sanitizing a cut on her thumb, escalate in the background of her new relationship. Her regular teen problems only add to the stress, with many of her relationships deteriorating as people feel pushed away. While there are attempts to solve the mystery of Davis’s missing father, including some Internet detective work, little progress is made. Sprinkled throughout the narrative are red herrings, like the shady nature of the billionaire’s staff; some are consistent to the point of convincing the reader they’re vital information, only to come to nothing.

The climax of Turtles All The Way Down reverses the main plot and the subplot, making Aza’s mental illness more significant than Davis’s missing father. Although Davis’ father’s disappearance receives closure, it comes late and feels forced, as if the author only remembered it at the last minute.

Watching Aza’s character grow and change is far more interesting than the romantic element of the novel. The darker elements of this book—poverty, the death of a parent, and a missing parent—are present, but unexplored. Most of the time, there’s too much going on to center on one thing.

Loyal John Green fans will appreciate his characteristic dives into philosophy, focusing on ideas of the self and free will, and the “intellectual” vocabulary the characters use. However, for casual readers, it does not hold a candle to his earlier successes.

Turtles All The Way Down is a decent book from a competent author, yet it attempts too much. Whether it was the pressure to meet the acclaim of his previous books, or the stress of accurately representing mental illness, Turtles All The Way Down is all over the place. While being dragged along on Aza’s spirals, you fall into one yourself—but it never reaches an end, and you are caught in the middle.

By Bailey Bujnosek.

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