Book review: Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Sometimes you don’t win the war, but you learn how to navigate the battleground.

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green (first published in 2017 by Penguin Random House)

A shortened version of this review originally appeared on Click on the link at the bottom to purchase a copy of the book.

If I could sum up John Green’s latest book -  which focuses on a young teen with severe obsessive compulsive disorder – in one sentence then this is what that sentence would be:

Sometimes you don’t win the war but you learn how to navigate the battleground.

I say this because as someone with depression and social anxiety disorder, I’ve been around the bend a few times. I have as many good days as I have bad days and sometimes the one outdoes the other.  I hope to win the war some day, but for now, I do what I can to keep going.

Like I said, navigating.

John Green is a household name in the YA genre.  The bestselling author of hits like Paper Towns, Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars has become renowned for his compelling storytelling and wonderful writing.

He’s also been criticised for creating pretentious and contrived manic pixie girl narratives, which in retrospect, I only recognised in The Fault in Our Stars a few years after reading the book.
And even though I do enjoy his work while acknowledging this, it was because of this criticism that I was just a bit hesitant to dive in.

Thankfully my curiosity overrode my uncertainty because while not perfect (there’s still that element of overly world-weary and weirdly philosophical narrative that doesn’t quite fit in with the voices of some of the characters), Turtles All the Way Down is probably John Green’s most authentic book yet.

It’s also one of the hardest books to read because it chronicles the downward spiral of a teen’s struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Drawing from his own experiences with OCD, Green’s latest book is not just an important read about mental health, but it’s one that should be read by every person who has ever used the phrase “I’m so OCD or “I’m so depressed.”

To give you a bit of an overview,  in Aza Holmes, the protagonist of Turtles All the Way Down, we encounter a girl who while trying to uncover the mystery to a missing person’s story finds herself battling the raging nightmare of her inner psyche.
The New York Times describes this gut-wrenching read as “a teenager’s mind at war with itself,” because the novel delves into the self-destructive thoughts of a girl who veers between trying to maintain a veneer of normality and giving in to the obsessive self-loathing thoughts and behaviours that leaves her in a never-ending cycle of engaging in patterns she’s helpless to stop or control.

Let’s stop there for a second.

How many of you have been guilty of looking at an image that’s out of place or featured a missing details and allowed the inner perfectionist in you to scream “I’m so OCD?!”
Or maybe you were feeling sad and blurted that you’re “so depressed.”

You probably don’t mean any disrespect and no one can deny your right to feeling sad or being bothered, but here’s the thing – and here’s what Turtle All the Ways down reminds us – is that unless you have been diagnosed with these conditions, you have no understanding beyond an intellectual grasp of what it means to be depressed or have OCD beyond the phrases that you’re using.

People who have OCD aren’t just compelled to have something look a certain way or do something in a certain pattern that makes sense to them because they’re perfectionist.

Their anxiety and behavioural patterns are interconnected – Green perfectly demonstrates this in how he describes Aza’s obsession with constantly squeezing her finger to the point of bleeding, using hand sanitizer to clean the wound, covering said wound with a band-aid and repeating the process over and over again to abate her anxiety.

Aza lives inside of her head, believes her entire body is eating her up from the inside and hates the idea of living inside of herself. Her condition is extreme to the point where she can’t even kiss her love interest without gagging afterwards and wondering whether or not she’s going to die because she might be infected.
Turtles All the Way Down is a tough read for so many different reasons. Not only are you left feeling uncomfortable and heartbroken for a girl whose thoughts and decisions often leave her feeling like she cannot escape her own mind, but there is also another aspect that’s shown that many of us with mental health illnesses don’t always like talking about.

And that aspect is that we tend to be so locked inside of ourselves that we not only come across as being narcissistic and self-absorbed, but it also makes it look like we’re really bad friends to other people.

John addresses this thoroughly when Daisy, who shines in the role as Aza’s best friend, accuses her of showing so much lack of attention to her that she doesn’t even know what Daisy’s parents do for a living or even bothers to visit her at her apartment.

Ugly truths, but incredibly relatable ones.

Another thing I also really appreciated about the book is that it really delves into the benefits of going for therapy while simultaneously talking about the struggle of taking medication.
Aza willingly goes to therapy but struggles with the idea of taking medication as if “the only way to become yourself is by taking medication that changes yourself.”

There are so many incredible little nuggets of wisdom that’s hidden in this novel that I really have to refrain from quoting the whole book back to you.

And even though the plot itself is somewhat lacking (in fact, it serves more as a background feature as the characters’ stories themselves are the shining point of the book), I think the one takeaway you can take from Turtles All the Way Down is this:

You don’t get to hijack people’s mental health illness and trivialise their experiences with phrases that are nothing but a means to express your melodrama.

Read this book. It will make you see the plight of those with OCD in a completely different way.

Purchase a copy of the book from


Popular Posts