“But I was beginning to learn that your life is a story told about you, not one that you tell.”
16-year-old Aza Holmes knows she’s not in control of her thoughts.
As she sits at the lunchroom table among her friends at Winter Park High School or at home watching television with her mother, she is constantly consumed by and trying to escape her obsessive thought spirals.
Her main obsession is the worry that she’ll contract the bacterial infection Clostridium difficile or C. diff; an infection commonly obtained in hospitals, through the use of antibiotics.
Living in a world terrorized by the fear of her invasive thoughts and the fear of infection— as Aza constantly reads the Wikipedia article for microbiota, which are essentially “gut bacteria” that reside inside of us—she is forced to consider the question: If a person can’t control their thoughts, are they truly in control of their life?
To cope with this question, Aza consistently digs her right thumb into the fingerpad of her middle finger to prove to herself that she is real. Years of this practice have left a callus on her finger, which, when she fears infection, she opens up and drains of pus.
This is how we first meet Aza, the self-proclaimed “sidekick” of her lunch table and admittedly, her life, with her OCD making it hard for her to function outside of her thoughts.
So, when Aza’s best friend Daisy convinces her to tagalong to locate information on the whereabouts of a fugitive billionaire—for a $100,000 reward—Aza’s mental health is put to the test.
To do this, Aza must reunite with the fugitive billionaire’s 16-year-old son, Davis Pickett, who she met at a camp for children with deceased parents.
Like John Green’s previous novel, the 2012 #1 New York Times Bestseller The Fault In Our Stars, the focus is on the protagonist’s condition and how they live on despite it. With that being said, Green doesn’t let the readers or Aza off easy.
Throughout the novel’s 286 pages, we see Aza at her best and her worst, as she tries to maintain her friendship with her best friend Daisy, be a good daughter, navigate a romantic relationship and tries to find Davis’ father.
The novel is introspective, meaning the reader spends more time inside Aza’s head as she constantly maintains a dialogue with the thoughts that her therapist calls “intrusives” but which Aza calls “invasives.” The result is that Aza and her thought spirals appear to be more fleshed out than the supporting characters.
Still, this appears to be a function of Green’s writing, which in Turtles, is centered upon creating a realistic depiction of OCD and mental illness; wherein the one suffering can think of nothing else than their condition, as they struggle to live a fulfilling life; a task made harder once they start believing they are their condition.
Yet Green still leaves glimpses of these supporting character’s lives, their motivations and their worries, between Aza’s internal struggles, so that the reader can pay attention to them even when Aza is unable.
This move seems intentional on Green’s part, as if the novel is just as much for those trying to help a loved one with mental illness, as it is for those who are living with it. The reader needs to understand just how much Aza’s OCD isolates her and leaves her out-of-touch with those she cares about as they are with her and her illness.
Still, at its heart, Turtles All The Way Down is about living a productive and fulfilling life in spite of it all—in spite of OCD, in spite of where you come from or who you are and in spite of the fact that you’re not always in control.