Sunday, April 22, 2018

Turtles All the Way Down by John Greene

It’s a weird phrase in English, in love, like it’s a sea you drown in or a town you live in. You don’t get to be in anything else—in friendship or in anger or in hope. All you can be in is love.
John Green is a master of the tragicomic YA saga, and Turtles All the Way Down is another installation of what seems to have become his bread and butter: quirky love stories starring baggage-laden teens with not particularly happy (but still redeeming) endings. Instead of cancer (as in his famous The Fault in Our Stars), the star-crossed lovers here share the burden of dead parents, and there's an added level of mystery as one of the remaining parents disappears, but the general unravelling of the plot is much the same. Teens think they are impossible to love. Teens find love. They don't end up together, but it's okay.

The teen drama here is heartwarming and not overly saccharine or trite, but by far the most interesting and compelling aspect is how Greene depicts Aza, the protagonist, and her OCD. The disorder is never spelled out, but her spiraling, obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior (including, in one heartbreaking scene, shoveling hand sanitizer into her mouth because she has convinced herself that she has contracted c.diff) make it clear what she's struggling with from the first few pages. His descriptions were so vivid and immersive that I was not surprised when I stumbled on this interview in the Guardian where Green where he reveals that he suffers from the same "thought spirals" as Aza and has been coping with OCD his entire life.

Autism is all the rage in pop culture these days--from The Good Doctor to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime--anxiety and depression have long been staples of literature, and PTSD is entering the mainstream more and more, but OCD is relatively undiscussed. As a YA romance, this was just so-so, but as a glimpse into the mind of a child with OCD, this was a valuable and fascinating read. The disease wasn't trivialized or glossed over, and Aza doesn't make any kind of magical recovery; it's an honest if somewhat hopeful depiction of the lifelong, difficult slog that is dealing with mental illness. For that, it is both worth reading and worthy of praise and recognition.

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