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Review of Turtles All the Way Down

Turtles All the Way Down
by John Green
High School    Dutton    290 pp.
10/17    978-0-525-55536-0    $19.99

Five years after The Fault in Our Stars (rev. 3/12), Green returns to chart a different kind of debilitating illness. When we meet sixteen-year-old Aza Holmes in the cafeteria, her thoughts are laser-focused on her body’s microbiome: “Admittedly, I have some anxiety problems, but I would argue it isn’t irrational to be concerned about the fact that you are a skin-encased bacterial colony.” Aza’s obsessive compulsions, anxiety, and “invasive” thought-spirals only grow from there. Note-perfect narration — which seamlessly switches from first- to second-person during panic attacks — makes what should be objectively irrational seem relatable, even logical; readers’ empathy with Aza continues to grow throughout the story. But Turtles is also a mystery and a romance. Aza and her vivacious best friend, Daisy Ramirez, investigate the whereabouts of local billionaire Russell Pickett, who’s running from criminal charges. Their sleuthing leads to Pickett’s son Davis, Aza’s childhood friend from “Sad Camp” (his mother had died, as had Aza’s father). The stars don’t seem aligned as Aza begins a tentative romance with kind, introspective Davis: her mental health deteriorates, and he struggles with being a guardian to his grief-stricken younger brother. These plot lines give the story momentum and shape, but its epicenter is a clear-eyed exploration of mental illness and of the deep existential revelations that suffering can engender. Green has proven himself a master manipulator of readers’ feelings, but he is, as ever, benevolent in that role. What readers may shed in tears is repaid in hope, spiritual curiosity, and a deeper connection to the human experience.

From the January/February 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Katrina Hedeen About Katrina Hedeen

Katrina Hedeen is associate editor of The Horn Book Guide and manager of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards.

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