I feel like I was in a unique position when I read this book, even though that unique position is shared by literally millions of other fans of John Green. There’s this community that has developed around the youtube channel John shares with his brother Hank (we call ourselves Nerdfighters), and as I think happens with a lot of vlog-style personal youtube channels, if you watch the videos often enough, and over enough time, it starts to feel like you really know that person, even if, like me, you only ever met John for approximately 30 seconds at a book signing over 5 years ago.
So when I read Turtles All the Way Down, it felt like I was reading a book by a friend. I could see so much of John in every page, more so than in any of his previous books. John Green is one of those writers that wears a lot of themselves on their sleeves when they write. His early books (most notably, in my opinion, Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns) feel a lot like stories of his own life, but I didn’t “know” him when he wrote them, so they resonated in different ways for me. The Fault in Our Stars is definitely a testament to the life and death of Ester Earl, which played out in Nerdfighteria, but I was only around for the aftermath. With Turtles, John is really tackling his life-long battle with mental illness, which he’s very honest about in his videos, especially over the last few years.
In a lot of ways, Turtles is a response to TFIOS, but not so much to the book itself as to the explosion around it’s publication and the subsequent movie. I think of those as dark times in Nerdfighteria, not because I didn’t like the book (I did) or because the movie wasn’t a great adaptation (it was), but because if you were paying attention, you could really see the toll that level of stress was taking on John.
Some authors never bounce back from a bestselling book like The Fault in Our Stars. It made “John Green” all but a household name. Most people in my life won’t necessarily recognize his name, but they’ll know who I’m talking about when I mention TFIOS. John Green was already a big name in YA and book communities, but the success of the TFIOS book and movie really propelled him into the rest of the public consciousness. It’s hard to follow up that kind of success.
Perhaps ironically, Turtles doesn’t remind me as much of his previous books as it does Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (one of my favorite books, I might add). Both have characters who suffer from anxiety, although it manifests very differently in both their cases. Both protagonists are struggling to find their way to themselves, while also feeling like a burden to the people around them. They have trouble with romance; they have trouble just functioning in their daily lives, sometimes; and they both fight with this desire to feel or at least act “normal,” which is something that’s easy to relate to even if you’re lucky enough not to be saddled with the extra struggle of having a mental illness. Although both are very targeted in their characters, they’re still easy to relate to, and I think they really add positively to the conversation around mental illness (although I think this without being a part of that conversation, so take that with a grain of salt).
I almost feel like I’m too close to John to be able to adequately judge if this was a good or a bad book (also, what does that really even mean?), but it was an impactful book. It left me thinking, even just between paragraphs, and the ending was satisfying without being too neat, which I always appreciate.
There were a few places where I was left wanting. There were approximately five seconds in which I thought Aza’s best friend, Daisy, might be queer, but she was pretty quickly shuffled into a heterosexual relationship. This wasn’t a problem necessarily, and of course being in a het relationship doesn’t guarantee the character is heterosexual (as opposed to bisexual, pansexual, or some other identity), but since John’s only written queer characters when his co-writer was a gay man, it would have been nice to see him actively incorporate one. And I think Daisy could have been completely unchanged as a character if her love interest had been female. It would have only added to the experience of the book for me, and wouldn’t have negatively effected Aza’s story in any way.
Ok, this next point is about the end, and I’m going to try to do it as non-spoilery as possible, but you have been warned!
I’m not sure how I feel about the last page or so of the book, where John Green does something you’re generally not advised to do in YA books: jumps to the characters later in life. The YA editor in me was screaming, but I see why the choice was made. It’s one of those details that flies when your audience is adults, and is harder to pull off when your audience in teens, but since John Green does have such a varied readership (just look at the cover—this is not being aggressively marketed at teens; it’s being left open to both teen and adult readers, similar to how they marketed TFIOS, which I think speaks volumes about who they’re hoping to grab the attention of—that is, everyone), it can slide by. As an adult reader, I kind of like it; it makes me think of all the ways I’ve changed since I was Teen Lucy. But it did take me out of the book a little. It was one of the parts that felt especially dripping with John’s personal voice, and that’s not a bad thing necessarily, but like I said, I have mixed feelings about it.
Ok, the potentially-spoilery part is over!
Overall, this book was exactly what I was hoping for: a continued distance between current John books and the legacy he started back with Looking for Alaska. I feel like he was stuck for a few years writing the same book over and over again, and I liked all the iterations of it, but I’m happy to see him continuing in the vein of TFIOS and treading new ground. It was also mercifully different from TFIOS in so many ways that I can see him growing and changing as an author. I’m such a proud little fan right now!