The Netflix original television series “13 Reasons Why based on the 2007 young adult novel, was an extreme success in its target audience, which was, of course, the high schoolers it tells a story about. The tear-jerking story of a teenage girl who commits suicide due to depression and peer pressure, among other things, and the boy who was infatuated with her, was declared a “must-see” by as soon as it came out.
It was lauded with praise for talking so openly about mental illness and suicide, and I couldn’t scroll down my Instagram explore page without seeing posts about how girls wished they had a boyfriend as sensitive as Clay (insert heart-eye-emoji here) or that boys as hot as Tony went to their school (cue the string of eggplant-tongue-water-droplets emojis).
I didn’t watch it; I had many friends that did. The show contained graphic and triggering images of the scene where Hannah kills herself and is sexually assaulted, among other things. According to ABC News, it allegedly inspired teen girls in Southern California to imitate Hannah Baker.
To myself (a member of the mentally ill community) and many others, this show was a terrifying example of the glamorization of mental illness in the media and culture of young people, specifically Generation Z. So when I received the latest John Green book for my birthday, I was fairly skeptical.
John Green is known best for his if-you-haven’t-read-it-yet-you’re-a-martian young adult romance novel “The Fault in Our Stars,” and has published many other teen romance novels in a similar vein. I’ve seen his books torn apart for being pretentious and whiny pieces of literature, full of intensely quotable, (but highly unrealistic) eloquent lines from edgy fifteen-year-old boys contemplating the greater purpose of it all or something.
In fact, his 2005 novel “Looking For Alaska” is not at all dissimilar to “13 Reasons Why” in plot and concept (boy in unrequited love with dead girl). After reading “Turtles All The Way Down” though, I owe John Green–and his writing–an apology.
“Turtles All The Way Down” begins like a coming-of-age romance novel, about a sixteen year old high school junior named Aza Holmes. She introduces herself as a “sidekick” to her almost comically extroverted best friend, Daisy, and confesses to her audience that she thinks she might be fictional, feeling out of control in her life, telling a story that isn’t her own.
Holmes and Daisy embark on a quest to find a missing millionaire and collect reward money for him, whose charmingly nerdy teen son Davis just so happens to be Aza’s prepubescent camp friend. Aza’s internal monologue is beautifully written as she describes her thought processes, which are spiral-like in nature. She struggles with her intrinsic guilt about other people’s lives being complicated because of her problems. She is obsessed with the danger of contracting a specific stomach virus, and her paranoia limits her everyday life, in seemingly insignificant ways.
Aza struggles with (though the terminology is never used) some depression, anxiety and primarily Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, centered on tendencies. If this sounds heavy, it is. And yet, Green’s writing makes this an incredibly digestible read.
His signature prose tells the story of Aza and her problems in a way that keeps it from feeling suffocating for the reader, allowing this book to be as readable as it is intense. Green’s thought-provoking style of writing is perfectly suited for this narrative, which is a narrative that is fairly unlike his typical M.O.
Everything about this book defies the typical confines of “whiny teen lit” because it isn’t whiny. It’s completely and totally honest. Even the supporting characters are typically given dimension and problems of their own: the seemingly shallow Daisy is stressed about paying for college and frustrated about her family’s financial situation; Davis is trying to help his 13-year-old brother cope with their physically and emotionally absent father, and confesses to the pressures of being in the public eye due to his money.
They are far from stereotypical. The characters, especially Aza, are all strikingly real, and human. The story remains touching without being trite. So how did John Green succeed, where “13 Reasons Why” failed?
What makes the book so different is how close it hits to home for its author. Green has been open in interviews talking about how this story is as much his own as it is Aza’s. “I spent a lot of my childhood consumed with obsessive worry and dread,” he said to the New York Times in October.
He has been living with OCD and anxiety for all of his life, and in “Turtles All The Way Down,” Green pours out the twists and turns of his own journey and gives his protagonist traits, thoughts and experiences that run parallel to his own.
“People want that narrative of illness being in the past tense. But a lot of the time, it isn’t,” he said in the same NYT interview. The book was written after Green recovered from an intense 2015 relapse. It is a magnum opus of a book. For some, it is a look into the experiences that others face every day. For others, it is an incredibly accurate articulation of what goes on in their own mind.
he stunning accuracy and emotional impact of “Turtles All The Way Down” is possible because it is written by someone who knows what they’re talking about. And when you consider it fully, that is the difference between it and works like “13 Reasons Why.” The show written by people who have never experienced depression, for an audience that has never experienced depression about the people who experience mental illness-so no wonder they got it so wrong.
When people from marginalized groups-whether they are speaking about mental health, or even sexuality, gender, or race-can speak openly about their stories and experiences, it creates better and more meaningful narratives. By amplifying their voices, we are telling the real stories. These are stories of hope and healing.
“Turtles All The Way Down” gives its protagonist the full future and adulthood that Green wants mentally ill kids to know it is possible to have. It does this without minimizing the challenges they face, or the reality and difficulty of the recovery process. It will break your heart and stitch it together again, cover to cover. It is that sort of book.