John Green reflects on his mental health struggle

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John Green, a popular young adult author, has returned from a five-year hiatus with a new novel, Turtles All The Way Down.

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After the success of his previous novel, The Fault in Our Stars, Green was launched into unexpected stardom, resulting in a mental health crisis in 2015. This struggle became the culmination of an intensely personal story reflecting his battle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in a character that best represents his mental state, Aza Holmesy.

The novel focuses on Aza, an intelligent yet deeply flawed teenager (as Green’s protagonists often tend to be). In a darker take on the classic John Green heroine, Aza suffers from severe O.C.D. The book is as disturbing as it is compelling, throwing readers into the “tightening gyre” of her thoughts from the first page.

While Aza is a step away from the dark subject of teenage cancer patients in The Fault in Our Stars, her trials prove more difficult to read. The story is written with a noticeably darker tone than Green’s previous novels. Green’s apparent projection of his own psyche onto the character gives her an eerie understandability.

“I didn’t start out thinking I was even writing a book,” Green told Entertainment Weekly. “I started by thinking, I need to try and find expression for this way-down terror that controls so much of my daily life.”

Readers spend pages trapped with Aza in her thought spirals, during which Green demonstrates his mastery of rapid-fire dialogue. The thought spirals are illogical in nature, but Green makes them feel rational. Aza’s compulsive need to reopen a self-inflicted wound in order to sanitize it and her need to drink hand sanitizer are made logical in her spiraling thoughts. Turtles, in contrast to previous Green novels, adds no humor in moments of crisis. Green establishes that if Aza can’t find relief from her thoughts, neither can his readers. Aza pleads for relief in one of her most disastrous spirals, telling her thoughts, “Please let me go. I’ll do anything.”

While O.C.D. drives Aza’s behavior, it is only a subplot of the story. A local billionaire has gone missing during a police investigation, creating a $100,000 reward for any information that may lead to his arrest. Aza and her best friend, Daisy, obsess over the possibility of wealth when Daisy remembers that Aza knows the billionaire’s son, Davis. Aza reluctantly agrees to visit him, throwing the trio into a once in a lifetime adventure full of mystery, loss, and falling in love.

Green projects himself onto the small cast of nerdy, yet strangely introspective and profound teens. Daisy is a Star Wars fan fiction writer and Davis is well-versed in astronomy. The characters are emotionally complex, but when remembering that they are only 16 years old, their deep philosophies on life and death become cringeworthy.

The premise of the novel feels much less important than the depth of Aza. Green’s purpose of writing was not to focus on missing billionaires, but rather to use his creativity as a coping mechanism for understanding his own mental health. He succeeds in his goal of shining a light on dark the reality of mental illness. Readers don’t need to suffer from O.C.D. to understand. Green focuses the most human of emotions in this return novel, creating an equally beautiful and disturbing story.

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