High-school junior Aza Holmes, fan of bad poetry, Dr. Pepper, and her beat-up car Harold, has, like every normal adolescent, some irrational fears. But hers are worse. She has intense germophobia, which keeps her from other normal teenage activities: friendships, adventures, and especially kissing her first boyfriend.
Aza’s struggle to escape the “tightening spiral” of her anxiety disorder is the focus of popular young adult fiction author John Green’s latest novel, “Turtles All the Way Down,” a coming-of-age story through which Green serves as equal parts author, teacher, therapist, and poetry professor. I read the story for a Christmastime walk down memory lane. I emerged disoriented, wondering whether as a teenager I, like Green, had confused relatable life advice with good storytelling.
In classic YA fashion, Aza is a smart, eloquent teenager with real problems — and interesting ones. She obsessively researches bacteria that live in the human body. She picks open a callus on her thumb, cleans it, and applies new bandages, over and over again. She could be played by a young Emma Watson; she would not be out of place in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” a novel-turned-movie in the same coming-of-age vein from a few years ago.
By novel six, there is a recognizable brand to Green’s characters, and Aza and co. partake in typical Greennesses: They are precocious, articulate, honest, emotional, troubled. They come from broken homes at mediocre high schools in nondescript cities. But they love their small families and friend groups something fierce, and they talk with them about poetry, philosophy, and cosmological models with equal earnestness. Aza’s new boyfriend Davis has a poetry blog, which features Shakespeare, Woolf, and Plath; he writes poems with odd rhyme schemes because “That’s like life; it rhymes, but not in the way you expect.” He and Aza use metaphors to shape their struggles; Aza adapts Yeats’s “The Second Coming” by describing her mental state not as a “widening,” but a “tightening gyre.”
Precocious, perhaps, but not foreign to the teenage experience. Having put in some time as a pretentious teenage girl myself, I can attest that glossing adolescent crises with classic literature is a coping mechanism for the few, the chosen, the afflicted among bookworms.
But in popular young adult literature?
Well, yes, and here, the risk of didacticism works — neither the book’s characters nor its author is dumb, and at least the kids are learning something while thinking about serious problems like teen mental disorders.
It is not in Green’s (admittedly predictable) cast of characters that my discomfort with “Turtles” lay. And it is not the glorification of heavy subject matter of Aza’s mental struggles. (Green writes of mental illness in a way that is self-consciously Not Your Regular Problem Novel, the sort that concerns itself more with emotional identification and validation — or, at worst, voyeurism — than with healing.)
My discomfort lay in the unshakeable sense that this was a therapy session, not a story.
But Green’s approach isn’t just sentimental drivel: There are no easy answers for Aza and Davis, just as there were none for the star-crossed Gus and Hazel of “The Fault in Our Stars.”
No, Aza’s anxiety is no shiny badge of individuality, but her adversary: “Madness, in my admittedly limited experience, is accompanied by no superpowers; being mentally unwell doesn’t make you loftily intelligent any more than having the flu does. So I know I should’ve been a brilliant detective or whatever, but in actuality I was one of the least observant people I’d ever met.”
And her anxiety attacks force her into tighter spirals than merely unwrapping and rewrapping the bandage on her finger: Her relationship with her best friend flounders because of her self-centeredness. Her romance with Davis dissolves amid her nightmares about shared salival bacteria.
Davis’s own troubles are less relatable, though they ostensibly ground the whole (loose) plot. His father, a filthy rich man in every sense of the word, has disappeared. He has no mother; he and his younger brother may be the world’s richest orphans. The plot: Aza can help track him down. The point: Green needs to get Aza and Davis in the same room, and the stakes need to be high.
A loosely plotted adventure story is nothing new for coming-of-age novels, or for Green. (He did the same in “Looking for Alaska” and “Paper Towns.”) And neither are the troubled characters or the ill-fated lovers. The tear-jerker “The Fault in Our Stars” is a wildly popular story of cancer patients who fall in love and make the best of the time they have. Sweet. Probably, when the other options on the shelves include adolescent experimentation (still!) with werewolves and zombies.
A quote from Virginia Woolf summarizes Aza, Davis, and Green’s mission in “Turtles:” “The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.’”
This is the quest of the “problem novel” version of the coming-of-age story: They must learn to connect through a pain that they find unspeakable, but they must also avoid destroying each other.
Green is right, and his readers likely need to learn it: Love is no therapy session. It is the way that Aza’s illness threatens to make love impossible that the story comes together. Her inability to connect with Davis is what finally allows her to escape the cage of her disorder, but not in the way either of them wants, or expects.
Spoiler warning: In one of the final scenes in the novel, the two engage in a touching, mature conversation in Applebees (he tries to sit next to her; she moves to the opposite side of the booth) in which Aza comes to terms with the fact that she can’t love Davis in the way he needs. He needs physical closeness, and she needs to find a way not to drink hand sanitizer to stave off nightmares about bacteria after she kisses him. She does not blame herself for her problems, but she does not deny them, either. She (or Green) philosophizes a bit longer about the many lessons one’s first love (Aza has only had one; what does she know?) teaches, and the book ends.
The ending hits just right — too right. It is as if Green has checked every box in his list of “things that make a good coming of age novel,” and now he sits back, confident that he has imparted wisdom to the young folks. He has identified with them and allayed their fears, and he has given them hope for health and healing and love in the future. All in the space of a 250-page novel.
Perhaps he has. Having spent some time as not only a precocious teen, but also a troubled one, I have to ask: Would “Turtles” have helped? And how — as validation, as emotional release, as affirmation of the hope? And are these concerns primary? Isn’t the story itself, and not its emotional benefits, what matters?
Literature can heal, but it can do a lot more while it’s at it. “Turtles All the Way Down” leaves readers on the psychiatrist’s couch.