John Green really knows how to create memorable characters who tug at your heartstrings. I defy anyone with a heart to read The Fault in Our Stars without crying, for instance. His latest book, which I read on a recommendation from a member of the Field Notes Book Group (thanks, Michelle!), is another young adult book whose main character, Aza, is dealing with a lot of issues, but who is anything but a stereotyped Young Adult Female Protagonist.
Aza is a person who lives mostly in her own head, which is a frightening place to be. Her internal voice is obsessed with disease and death, to the point where she’s terrified of kissing someone she deeply cares about because she’s afraid his bacteria entering her body will interact with her bacteria and end up killing her. When we first meet her in the high school cafeteria, she’s so mentally absorbed with her own biome that she can barely pay attention to her best friend, Daisy, or anything else around her. Aza is not easy to live with; her widowed mother struggles to understand her and keep her from suffering unduly, her therapist has to deal with Aza’s tendency to stop taking her medication, and that best friend, Daisy, has had to work around what looks like Aza’s utter self-centeredness and selfishness for years.
Daisy, who’s more plugged in to the real world than Aza could ever be, starts the plot rolling with a report on a substantial reward being offered for any information that could lead to the discovery of a rich man on the run from prosecutors for fraud and other criminal charges. Daisy remembers that Aza used to be friends (or at least acquaintances) with the man’s son, Davis, and pushes Aza to reignite that relationship (despite Davis’ going to a private school on the other side of the river from Daisy and Aza; little details like that do not faze Daisy) so they can find a clue to where Davis’ father might have gone.
Despite herself, Aza does meet up again with Davis (with some help from Daisy), and he does remember her, and clearly has at least friendly feelings for her. He’s living with his younger brother, Noah; their mother died years before and now, with their father missing, Davis is acting as a guardian for his brother, for which he is not the least prepared, despite all the family wealth. Davis is no dummy; he knows all about the reward and realizes that the prospect of a reward could be responsible for Aza’s reappearance into his life, so he tries to take the money question off the table, so he and Aza can have a real relationship.
Little does he know how difficult that is for Aza. We, the readers, know this deeply because we’re inside Aza’s head with her, trapped in what she refers to as the spiral, the tightening gyre of thoughts she can’t escape or ignore. That she manages to get as close as she does to Davis, that she manages to make a connection with his younger brother, is the result of a massive effort on her part. She keeps trying to explain to Davis why she’s acting in what she recognizes seems like a bizarre way to anyone else, and Davis, for his part, is much more understanding and kind than most rich young men would be in the circumstances.
One of the things I like about this book, besides the mystery (which the characters do solve by the end), is the relationship between Daisy and Aza. This isn’t the classic Harry Potter type scenario where best friends just exist to play their parts in the hero’s story, where the friends show a superhuman patience and understanding all the time so the hero can do whatever he wants to do, secure in the knowledge of their loyalty. Daisy is a real person, a complicated and funny person, whose history with Aza means she can be quite kind to her friend (whom she refers to as Holmesy, from Aza’s last name; at one point Daisy tells her that Aza shouldn’t be so mean to Holmesy, which is quite insightful), but whose depth as a character means she can also resent Aza’s endless inner focus. The two of them finally have a fight about that, while Aza is driving them somewhere (not the best location for something like that, obviously), which leads to terrible consequences, mostly for Aza, but I was glad they had the fight and got the resentment and frustrations out in the open, as real friends should. Daisy is anything but the flat, perfect friend stereotype, and the book is richer for her loud, exuberant presence in it.
This isn’t a story with the kind of plot you expect. Green’s smart: he has Aza suggest, late in the book, that her story follows the classic path where she finds the missing man, is cured of her mental illness and marries Davis and lives happily ever after, just so you can see how unlikely that particular plotline is in these circumstances. While the mystery is in fact solved and Aza does work on her mental health issues, this isn’t a book where the miracle occurs and everybody comes out ahead, and it’s a stronger book for it. The resolution is satisfying without being totally happy. The characters you’ve come to care about over the course of the book (and you care about most of them, a tribute to Green’s skill) end up in a better place, whatever that means for each of them.
An excellent book that brings mental illness to vivid, painful life, Turtles All the Way Down is also a great read, the sort of book that absorbs you and won’t let go.