With “Turtles All The Way Down,’’ John Green had two very difficult tasks: One he could not escape, and one he chose. First, he needed to write something that would meet the high expectations set by his last book, 2012’s “The Fault in Our Stars,’’ a critical and commercial smash. The ambitious way he elected to do that was with a tale that depicts, in visceral and unflinching detail, the experience of living inside a brain plagued by an anxiety disorder and intrusive thought cycles, conditions Green himself lives with.
The resulting novel contains familiar pleasures — a scavenger-hunt like mystery that unfolds around a sweet-but-possibly doomed romance; clever banter; a binding friendship that only two oddballs can find with one another; and fascinating facts that become potent metaphors. In addition, he creates an arresting portrait of mental illness that could, earnestly, change lives.
But the novel’s balance is off. While the portions of the book devoted to the lived experience of mental illness feel vibrant and vital, the surrounding John Greeny pleasures of plot and character are left underdeveloped.
“Turtles’’ tells the story of 16-year-old Aza Holmes, trapped by her anxious mind and mourning the loss of her father, and her “Best and Most Fearless Friend,” Daisy Ramirez. With typical recklessness, Daisy decides that the pair should join the hunt for the missing, crooked billionaire Russell Pickett (in hopes of collecting a $100,000 reward), bringing Aza back into contact with Pickett’s son Davis, her childhood friend and one-time crush. Hijinks (some) and philosophical musings (many) ensue.
Relating the tale from Aza’s point of view allows Green to show us how it feels to be at the mercy of unbidden thoughts. Whether it’s Aza being yanked away from a conversation with Daisy because she fears her rumbling stomach may signal a fatal bacterial infection or Aza panickingbecause a kiss from love interest Davis will transfer 80 million of his microbes to her and “modestly but consistently alter her microbiome,” Green’s writing is uncomfortably, gut-clenchingly transporting.
Confronting, through Aza’s internal monologue, bleak facts like “the smell of your sweat isn’t from the sweat itself, but from the bacteria that eat it,” brings home one of the essential truths about mental illness. So often, the problem is not seeing things that aren’t there. It’s being constantly, oppressively aware of the objective horrors that do surround us, the ones that other people’s brains seem capable of skittering right past.
Unfortunately, the book fails to depict anything else with equivalent depth. Sometimes it feels as if this is a byproduct of having a protagonist as obsessively self-reflective as Aza. When you are writing from within a mind that gets hijacked constantly by intrusive thoughts, it should be hard to bring anything beyond those thoughts into complete focus.
Other times it appears an active storytelling choice, given the way the book’s central mystery of Davis’s father’s fate is largely sidelined as Aza develops a relationship with Davis, then becomes further and more terribly trapped by her own brain. The evolution of this whodunit into a who-cares-whodunit seems a deliberate rejection of the trope in which a person with mental illness solves a puzzle-box mystery and becomes, as Aza cracks, “a great detective, not in spite of my brain circuitry, but because of it.”
Green’s muddy plotting could easily be overlooked if Aza’s relationships were as vivid and believable as her illness. Sadly, all the characters other than Aza are underdeveloped.
Davis, whom we get to know chiefly through monologues about astronomy and poetic entries in a secret Web blog Aza discovers, never feels wholly realized. He sounds, in fact, like a 17-year-old attempting to mimic the pop profundity of . . . a John Green novel.
Worse, however, the two relationships in Aza’s life that should carry the most weight — that with her widowed mother and her outgoing best friend — are given too little space to breathe. Never is this more apparent than in the climactic fight between Daisy and Aza. At issue is the way Aza’s disorder renders her terminally self-involved and neglectful of Daisy, a problem we suspect would be true. But because we have observed so little of them together, the dispute has a weightless quality — it’s hard to know whether Daisy is being needlessly harsh or whether Aza has narrated their relationship unreliably.
Similarly, while we can understand how Aza’s mom’s anxiety about her daughter’s anxiety is unhelpful, because her character is not developed much beyond that trait what there is of a character arc for her lacks emotional heft.
As meditation on anxiety and even on the grief of losing a parent (a shared biographical detail that first unites Aza and Davis), “Turtles All The Way Down’’ is profoundly successful. As a story about an individual having relationships with those around her, it is admittedly diverting (there are aspects of the characters that do delight) but lacks emotional depth. The insights in individual sentences — like “[i]llnes s is a story told in the past tense’’ — can still hit home in the way Green intends. But it’s hard not to imagine the novel we might have had if only Green’s attention hadn’t been split between puzzles and people.
TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN
By John Green
Dutton, 286 pp., $19.99Margaret H. Willison is, officially, a librarian and, self-described, a culture witch and social-media socialite. You can find her in frequent brief bursts on Twitter at @MrsFridayNext or in weekly wordy missives at tinyletter.com/twobossydames.