Turtles All the Way Down by John Green has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
Sixteen-year-old Aza lives with her mom in Indianapolis. Her father died of a heart attack years earlier. Aza sees a counselor for her obsessive-compulsive behavior, which centers on her fear of germs and disease. She constantly reopens, sanitizes and rebandages a wound on her hand and reads online articles about a disease called Clostridium difficile (C. diff), which she’s sure will kill her.
Her thoughts often swirl out of control, driving her to loathe herself. Aza takes her psychiatric medication inconsistently, despite the pleas of her mother and her counselor. She fears taking medication will make her someone other than herself. Often, she wonders if she is a fictitious character created by someone else who is writing her life.
Aza’s best friend, Daisy, works at Chuck E. Cheese and writes fanfiction about Star Wars characters online. The girls hear local billionaire Russell Pickett has disappeared. Police are offering a $100,000 reward for information. Pickett had been facing a bribery conviction.
Daisy recalls that Pickett’s son, Davis, and Aza attended a grief camp together after Aza’s dad died and Davis lost his mom. Aza and Daisy take a canoe up the river to the Pickett mansion and sneak onto the property in search of clues. When a Pickett employee catches them, Aza says she and Davis are old friends.
The employee guides Aza and Daisy into the ornate Pickett mansion, where Davis and his 13-year-old brother, Noah, now live under the care of the staff. Davis asks if Aza’s reappearance in his life has anything to do with the reward money for his father. She doesn’t deny it. Davis tells her he doesn’t know where his dad is, but he’s glad he’s gone.
The girls learn Pickett has willed his entire fortune to his rare, lizard-like creature called a tuatara. Pickett was fascinated by the creature, which dated back to the Mesozoic era and could live to be over 150 years old. He believed research on the animal could lead to extended lifespans in humans. He left nothing to his sons.
Aza and Davis begin texting and spending time together. Aza feels concerned for Noah, who seems devastated by his father’s absence. Noah begs her to keep trying to find his dad. Davis grows more interested in Aza.
Once while she’s visiting the mansion, he gives her $100,000 in cash. He says his father had piles of cash stashed around the house. He’d rather have her take the money than talk to the police. This way he’d know she was really interested in him, not just the reward. Aza and Daisy split the money, and Pickett’s lawyer helps them deposit it into bank accounts.
Aza and Davis’ relationship continues to develop, and Aza loves their conversations. She’s initially excited to kiss him for the first time, until her neurotic thoughts remind her how many germs pass between people who kiss each other. Each time they try to kiss, Aza ends up running into the bathroom and drinking hand sanitizer to kill the germs. She can’t stop the spiraling thoughts telling her she will die of C. diff.
Davis asks Aza if she’s ever read Daisy’s fanfiction, since one character resembles Aza. Aza reads the online stories and discovers a neurotic character who always ruins everything. Knowing Daisy feels this way about her adds to her stress and anger.
While driving with Daisy and arguing about the character, Aza totals the car that belonged to her father. She spends several weeks in the hospital. Aza begins to recognize there’s some truth to Daisy’s claims that she is self-absorbed. She begins taking her medicine regularly and makes a greater effort to know the details of Daisy’s life.
Aza and Daisy attend an art show featuring work by their friend Mychal. The underground venue, accessible by tunnels, reminds them of a clue they uncovered about Pickett. Aza tells Davis they believe Pickett’s body may be in the tunnels, and she says she’ll let him choose what to do with the information.
He and Noah decide they need closure more than Pickett’s money, and they report Aza’s findings to the police. Officers find Pickett’s body and suspect he died of exposure after trying to escape capture. Aza and Davis stop communicating as much, realizing a normal relationship is impossible for them right now. Davis visits Aza the day he and Noah are leaving town for good. He gives her a painting from his dad’s house that had always reminded Aza of her own spiraling thoughts. As she says goodbye to him, she hopes they will meet again. The final text indicates Aza has written all of this down years later at a counselor’s request as she has continued to fight for her mental well-being.
Aza says her grandmother used to talk about love by quoting 1 Corinthians 13. Some of the verses appear in the text.
Other Belief Systems
Pickett believes the tuatara holds the key to understanding human longevity and the evolution of life on earth. Pickett’s zoologist tells Aza tuataras haven’t changed much in 2 million years and evolve at a faster molecular rate than other animals, raising other evolutionary questions.
Davis says most adults try to fill themselves up with things that won’t save them, like money or booze or God. Daisy tells a story about a scientist explaining the Big Bang and evolution to a crowd when a woman speaks up and argues his theory. The woman says the earth is a flat plane resting on the back of a giant turtle. The scientist asks her what the turtle is resting on, and she replies another turtle, and another. She says it’s turtles all the way down. When Aza hears this story, she feels it is something akin to a spiritual revelation.
The Lord’s name is used in vain a number of times. Words including the f-word, s---, h---, d--k, a--, suck, p---, b--ch and boobs appear often.
Pickett dies of overexposure to the elements. This is only mentioned and isn’t graphic.
Some of Daisy’s internet readers accuse her of endorsing bestiality since she writes about a love affair between Chewbacca and a human. Daisy talks about receiving a “d--k pic” on her phone from a boy who wants to hook up with her. Aza says she’s never gotten a text like that but has seen penis pictures online. Daisy says Aza would have to be a 17th-century nun not to have seen a penis picture online. They joke about why a guy would think sending a photo of his semi-erect penis would be a good way to start a relationship.
Daisy and Mychal kiss in a bed at Davis’ house. She tells Aza they didn’t sleep together, but that Mychal is sexually open. She later says their relationship was doomed because Mychal didn’t want to have sex with someone he didn’t love, while she just wanted to lose her virginity. Aza and Davis kiss several times, and they swim in his pool in their underwear.
Drugs/Alcohol: Thirteen-year-old Noah drinks vodka and brings pot to school. He gets suspended for the drugs.
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Readability Age Range
14 to 18
Dutton Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
NPR Best Books of 2017; Publishers Weekly Best Books for Young Adults, 2017; and others