John Green is a big name in the lucrative world of young adult fiction. With four novels and two Hollywood films under his belt, and supported by a fan-base of millions, the release of Turtles All The Way Down, his most recent novel, was a certified big deal.
Turtles All The Way Down is about a girl called Aza who struggles with OCD. It’s also about a billionaire who goes missing, his son, a tuatara, and the White River, which runs through the city of Indianapolis. But above all that, John Green’s new novel is about John Green. Of course, all novelists incorporate insights from their own personal lives into their work – that’s part of the writing process.
Yet, in the case of Turtles All The Way Down, John Green’s confessional account of his own experiences with mental illness seems to come before all else. The plot is a messy cliche, with the characters merely serving as voices in a contrived and at points deeply pretentious faux-platonic dialogue. There are three supporting characters in Turtles, who are all predictable and two dimensional.
The manic and extroverted sidekick Daisy, who’s a foil for the protagonist’s withdrawn introversion, the poetically nerdy but angsty boyfriend Davis, (recycled from his previous novels), and the mother, who’s well-meaning but unsure about how to deal with her daughter’s condition.
Maybe Green is trying to highlight the everyday truths about living with mental illness, or trying to depict ordinary day-to-day relationships when someone’s really struggling. The best sections of Turtles are the bits which deal with OCD. But everything else in the novel feels either superfluous or formulaic. We’ve seen it all before – both Paper Towns and Turtles have the motif of a missing character as a narrative centrepiece, whilst the conversations about love and poetry are recognisable from every one of Green’s books, as is the well-worn romantic progression between the two protagonists.
Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking that John Green or his publicist has found a formula and is sticking with it. Perhaps the most grating thing about Turtles All The Way Down is that it’s so messy. The best plots are often the simplest, but this one is sprawling, bringing in the Tuatara, for instance. Not only is it messy, but it’s also secondary to what John Green really wants to write about: his OCD.
I was more disappointed than frustrated by Turtles. I love John Green, and have been watching Vlogbrothers (John and his brother Hank’s YouTube channel) for five years. Indeed, John Green is fun to read, at points, and it’s great that teenage fiction is really engaging with mental health issues, but the hype that Turtles All The Way Down is getting seems a little unjustified. It’s messy, clichéd, and at points it’s pretentious. Read something else.