Turtles All The Way Down: A Book Review

Updated on April 25, 2018
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Kate loves psychological thrillers and stories that question the order of the universe. She deems to share her newfound ideas to the world.


“Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum.”

“I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.”

Rene Descartes doubted his very existence that he made himself apprehend his own beliefs. He wanted to know whether you could really prove if anything was real. But in the end, he believed that his ability to doubt reality proved that he was, in fact, real. A person who doubts is as real as anyone. One's doubts make anyone more real, not less.

Turtles All The Way Down is a metaphorical philosophizing of the skeptical truth of existence, and our ability to be in control of ourselves despite the turmoil of losing the grasp of reality. The book sheds light on the dark, spiraling thoughts of a teenager suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder. The main character struggles with an illness where she battles with her uncontrollable urges and chaotic thoughts while at the same time, trying to keep a hold of her own reality.

Author, John Green created a compelling yet thought-provoking novel that tackles universal issues, and not just teen problems that adults are quick to ignore. What sets John Green apart from other YA authors and other authors, in general, is his ability to capture the colossal endeavors and dubiety of young adults in a vehement philosophical manner. He writes about knowledgeable teenage characters and recognizes their ability to comprehend complex concepts. Unlike other authors, he does not dismiss teenagers as shallow individuals. His utilization of extended metaphors is able to grasp what he is trying to say, effectively creating a much deeper connection with his readers.

"The marks humans leave are too often scars." - John Green
"The marks humans leave are too often scars." - John Green | Source

The story is told from the point of view of sixteen-year-old Aza Holmes, who has to live with her gnawing thoughts and profound anxiety. Throughout the novel, it is explicitly stated that her greatest fear is the intestinal germ, Clostridium difficile, that could be growing inside of her through being contaminated by external elements. Aza tries to fight the tightening spiral of her thoughts yet she was unable to, periodically ingesting sanitizer in fear of a professed parasitical growth.

Davis is her love interest who in turn is also dealing with a problem of his own. Throughout the novel, the theme of control is suggested. Aza cannot control her own anarchic thoughts which leads to her greatest fear. Davis cannot control the fiscal malfeasance, where their entire fortune will go to a prehistoric reptile called a tuatara if and when his father is considered “legally” dead. The people in the life of Aza cannot control how she reacts and what she does to herself which they feel helpless and frustrated about.

Your now is not your forever.

— John Green

The book heavily implies Aza’s imminent fear that is heavily reflected by her obsession with C. diff. She fears that her body, her thoughts, and her self are ultimately not hers. That we may say that we are the author of our own stories, but in the end, we are merely fulfilling our roles in someone else’s. We are ultimately dictated what to do by some external factor, “You think you’re the painter, but you’re the canvas.”

She sees herself as an anthology of thoughts and circumstances, that if you walk down her spiral to look for that one solid that is all her, there is just nothing.

Anybody can look at you. It's quite rare to find someone who sees the same world you see.

— John Green

John Green portrays Aza’s OCD through metaphors, one being how her mind is an ever-tightening spiral she can’t get out of. Although it is not a plot-driven story, the book not just gives you an experience inside the mind of a character that is damaged and flawed. It also makes you understand how her urges surfaces and takes control of her physical self. The main character repeatedly creates the same mistakes throughout the story. She tries so hard to dominate her own thoughts but imminently becomes overpowered by it. The conflict is within herself. She is terrified that one day, when she loses the part of her that counteracts her mind, she may lose herself too. One day, her thoughts will define her. Her physical body, the only one left that she can control, may succumb to her mind. Ultimately, the main antagonist is her thoughts.


Perhaps, the greatest fear of Aza is the menace that her thoughts will consume her. Therefore, she cannot will what she wills. She is not her, but an anthology of thoughts and circumstances.

What makes the story so fascinating is its correlation with society. Our world centralizes itself on a de facto government. We follow a set of arbitrary rules, and superstitions passed on to generations without questioning them. We base our judgment on the trends. We become what others expect us to. And when we realize how easily we submit to this hierarchy, we revolt, so consumed by our fear that we exhaust ourselves to the point that we are no longer ourselves but our fears.

You pick your endings, and your beginnings. You get to pick the frame, you know? Maybe you don't choose what's in the picture, but you decide on the frame.

— John Green

The fact that we refuse to let ourselves accept that maybe we can both be right, is the incipience of our downfall. The world is not black and white. One side does not have to be good all the time. Yes, there are still morals that we have to follow, but it doesn’t mean we are defined by those morals. We can both be the science and the imagination. Our selves are not circumstantial, nor are they purely ambiguity. The world is billions of years old, and life is a product of nucleotide mutation and everything. But the world is also the stories we tell about it.

The story follows how Aza reaches the realization that she can be both her thoughts and her self, that it is not necessary to doubt her being real. She is and she is not.


The book ends in an imperfect yet satisfying conclusion where Aza ascertains that control is not everything and nothing in the world is deserved except for love, as love is both how you become a person, and why. She lets go of herself and also holds it. No, she does not win the battle in her mind, but she does learn how to transcend it.

Turtles All The Way Down may not be an epic adventure, but it is thoroughly captivating and heart-stopping. It still does not fail to give an engaging plot even though it happens inside a character’s mind.

© 2018 Kate Galvan


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    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 

      2 years ago from Houston, TX USA

      Everyone goes through a phase of wondering what is real. I had several Verified telepathic experiences in my teens. The verification with other people taught me that telepathy is real and there is a whole new world after death. I offer the following article: https://hubpages.com/religion-philosophy/My-Telepa...

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Even in world events, there are no winners really. We only arrive at compromises at certaain points in our history, sometimes avoiding disasters, sometimes not. The same with our lives but maybe as older adults, we can help younger ones live with their ambiguities.


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