Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Read: 28 January, 2018

After a smash hit like The Fault In Our Stars, I can imagine how much pressure Green felt to follow it up without disappointing fans. Especially given how much more in the public eye he is than most authors. So it’s no wonder that, after publishing a book ever 1-2 years, we suddenly got a five year gap.

My favourite Green book is Looking for Alaska, because of the way he captured the effects of [redacted] on others – in particular, the mystery and the never knowing. But, at the same time, it was the beginning of the John Green Formula: awkward buy meets Manic Pixie Dream Girl, comes to amazed realisation that she is actually a full person, he is irrevocably changed. Which is exactly the sort of realisation that 99.5% of teenage boys need to have.

Then we had The Fault In Our Stars, which broke with tradition because, for the first time, Green wasn’t writing about himself. For that book, he put on the skin of Esther Earl – a teen fan who died of cancer. Not to psychoanalyse the author, but it was the first time he moved from realising that women are people, to actually taking on their thoughts and perspectives. It was an interesting transition, quite apart from all the other stuff that TFIOS was about.

Then there’s this book, which is still from the perspective of a woman, but is also much more personal. I don’t experience anxiety the way the main character does, but Green managed to capture something in her spiralling thought patterns. Enough so that, just reading the narrative, my own stomach (never the smartest part of my body) started reacting as if her thoughts were my thoughts. Which made this a bit of a difficult – not to mention physically painful – read.

I liked the way Green avoids easy resolutions – which is something he’s always done well. I also liked the centring of friendship, and the ultimate lesson of the story. I liked the authenticity of the way the man character felt.

If you don’t like YA or you don’t like Green, you probably won’t like this. But, personally, I might be changing my favourite Green novel.

A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

Read: 9 October, 2017

Recently retired, George is just starting to settle into his life’s new mode when he discovers an odd lesion on his hip. Though his doctor quickly dismisses it as ecsema, George is pretty sure that it must be cancer. And thus begins his spiral into depression as his family tries to cope while being utterly incapable of communicating with one another.

The writing style is casual, almost breathless, as each member of George’s family gives us direct access to their thoughts as they think them. It means that the narrative is always subjective, and sometimes even a little muddled as characters get drunk or high on valium or focus on details to the exclusion of the big picture. But having access to the perspective of all four members of the family balances out the narrative.

That said, Haddon has never met a metaphor he didn’t like. This was particularly noticeable at the beginning, before I had acclimated to the style. And, frankly, it bordered a little on the absurd at times.

The characters were strong, and it was interesting to see so much of them from both the inside and multiple versions of the outside. While the difference between the first and third person prespectives is a comedy gold mine, Haddon doesn’t take advantage. Characters remain fairly consistent regardless of observer, except where George’s mental illness is concerned (and then only because his inner thoughts are new, and therefore unfamiliar).

George’s illness hit a little close to home, making the first part of the book rather difficult to read. I’ve been ill quit a bit in the last 1-2 years, which has exacerbated my usual depression/anxiety combo. Having George’s thinking so neatly mirror my own put me into a sort of feedback loop that really wasn’t healthy. But while that was bad for me, it’s an endorsement of Haddon that he got it so right.

The “almost every problem would be solved if the characters would just talk to each other” trope is one that I usually find incredibly frustrating, but it didn’t bother me too much here. Perhaps because the characters understood the problem and were clearly trying to reach out to each other. But it did make the characters themselves unpleasant. They are all utterly self-centred and incapable of thinking of others. This is just annoying when they whine about being unable to relate to each other, but it’s sad when we see how it plays out in their treatment of Jacob – Katie’s toddler. It’s clear that his emotional needs are not being met, just as it’s obvious that Katie’s and Jamie’s weren’t met when they were children. So while the book largely ends on a high note, it’s also clear that nothing has truly been fixed, and that all the same issues will still be present in the next generation.

I’m honestly not too sure how I feel about the book. I’m always inclined to like what I read, and this book certainly had a lot to recommend it (the capturing of middle class britishisms, alone, gives the book a certain value), but I just didn’t enjoy reading it all that much. And maybe that has more to do with me than the book, and maybe I’m being unfair, but I just can’t recomend it. A book like this needs a lot more humour to give it some balance. Without it, it felt like we, like George, we’re just wallowing.

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