CBR12 BINGO: Orange
I keep trying to like young adult fiction, to the point where it might be unfair of me to review the genre, since it’s clearly not my thing. There are exceptions, of course (my recent discovery of Eleanor & Park stands out), but generally all I can expect from YA is a solid character to whom teenagers can relate. Turtles All the Way Down scores in its representation of a teenage girl with severe anxiety and OCD, but the rest of it just never came together for me. The representation of high school and high school students seemed more like the brain child of a Hollywood agent pitching a show about a fictional high school, where all the teens would be played by 25-year old actors.
You know what, never mind. If Robert DeNiro can pretend to be 40 in the Irishman, the cast of Glee can be teenagers.
The novel is about 16-year-old Aza Holmes, who suffers from OCD and extreme anxiety, conditions that manifest themselves in her fear of microbes. When she eats, all she can think about is the bacteria in her digestive track. She is obsessed with a callus on her finger that has never healed and has panic attacks about dying of C. diff (Clostridium difficile infection). The only way to calm herself is to take the bandage off her finger, squeeze any pus out of the wound, and put on a new bandage. That, unfortunately, only works for short periods. “You return to the couch to watch TV, and for a few or many minutes, you feel the shivering jolt of the tension easing, the relief of giving in to the lesser angels of your nature. And then two or five or six hundred minutes pass before you start to wonder Wait, did I get all the pus out? Was there pus even or was that only sweat? If it was pus, you might need to drain the wound again. The spiral tightens, like that, forever.”
In spite of her neurosis, Aza has a fabulous best friend in the outgoing and adventurous Daisy Ramirez. When the pair hear that local billionaire Russell Picket has disappeared on the eve of his arrest (for unspecified fraud charges), Daisy proposes that they look into his disappearance to earn the $100,000 reward for information leading to his arrest. As it turns out, Aza knows Picket’s son Davis from time they spent together at a camp for children who had lost a parent (in her case father, in Davis’s case, mother), so this gives them an “in.” Because is a friend really even a friend if you can’t show up at his house the day after his billionaire father abandons him and his younger brother for your own self-serving purposes?
And this is the first thing that bugs me about this book: Aza is so inconsistent as a character. She’s self-centered in the way that people who suffer from severe anxiety tend to be, yet she lets Daisy talk her into all sorts of ridiculous shenanigans, like trespassing onto the property and intruding on the tragedy of a rich kid she used to know at camp. The passages about the anxiety are powerful and resonate; yet Aza, in the short windows of time when she’s not stressing about bacteria, is so glib and ironic that she might as well be part of the cast of West Wing.
We’ll meet after gym class to solve the case of the missing billionaire.
Once Davis and Aza reconnect, sparks fly, sorta. He’s guarded, because he’s accustomed to people using him, and he’s not sure she isn’t just interested in him for his money. Which, let’s face it, she kinda was at first, but she realizes that she really likes him. In order to get around this trust issue, Davis decides to just give Aza $100k and be done with it.
Now I don’t know about you, but if somebody gave me $100k, I’d be pretty flippin’ freaked out, and my anxiety level isn’t anywhere close to Aza’s. But Aza, who can’t eat a sandwich without having a medical emergency, takes it in stride.
I’m being rather flippant, particularly with the title of my review, but it’s because I was frustrated by the glibness of this novel. The idea of the tightening of a spiral, of anxiety closing in on Aza, was so powerful that it annoyed me when the story shifted into “after school special” mode. The title, of course, doesn’t have anything to do with actual turtles, but with the mythological idea of a turtle supporting the world on its back. In this scenario, that turtle rests on the back of a larger turtle, who rests on an even larger turtle, and on and on; i.e., turtles all the way down. Daisy tells Aza this story as a metaphor for her anxiety.
I’ve got your lives in my scaly hands, bitches!
So no actual turtles, but a different kind of reptile figures prominently in the novel: the tuatara. In an unimaginable act of asshole parenting, Russell Pickett’s will dictates that his entire fortune will be left to his pet tuatara, which could live for 150 years. That’s right, the man has billions and can’t be bothered to leave his two children so much as a college fund. The kids are both minors, so it’s not like they are estranged and he’s punishing them for rejecting him. Was this some sort of blackmail ploy to force the older son to protect Pickett so that the brothers wouldn’t end up penniless? I have no idea, but at least it’s a happy ending for somebody.
Who has 2 non-opposable thumbs and is a billionaire? This guy!