Never in a million years would I think one day I would sit down and write a review for a John Green novel. I have read three (not including TATWD) John Green novels and only until recently liked one out of the three. In fact I still passionately hate Looking for Alaska. I’m impartial to Paper Towns because I really liked the storyline but hated the ending and FIOS was the first John Green book I liked. I read Paper Towns as a freshman in high school and never felt the need to read another John Green novel. As a senior in high school I read Fault in Our Stars because it was super popular and I wanted to know what all the hype was about. I really liked it and I liked the movie and I am not ashamed to admit it. In college my book club decided to read Looking for Alaska and I can count the number of books I have consciously quit reading on one hand. I hate not finishing a book but I had no problem putting Looking for Alaska back on the shelf and then destroying it during book club. I swore off John Green after that. It just reaffirmed that he couldn’t write teenage female characters or characters at really (but honestly FIOS was really good). For the longest time I would hate on John Green whenever his name was mentioned and tell people he was a terrible author. Of course my friends disagreed but I held firm that I would never read another John Green novel. That is until now.
In walked Aza Holmes and out walked my belief that John Green couldn’t write a believable female character. In a time when mental illness is just starting to finally be acknowledged and written about John Green blew me away with such a powerful novel about anxiety, OCD and what it is like to live in one’s own head. I can also count on my fingers the number of books I have read where I fully identify with the main character. Actually I only need two fingers because it was this book and FanGirl by Rainbow Rowell.
Anxiety isn’t something really talked about in YA, at least not in the YA I read growing up. In fact I don’t think I read many books as a teenager that dealt with any kind of mental illnesses. It just wasn’t talked about. Sometimes author’s nail it on the head though-what it means to live with anxiety. At one point in the story Daisy is ranting about Aza living in her head and Aza desperately tries to explain to her what it is like living in her own head. It’s not a choice. It’s not a conscious decision. It honestly sucks being stuck in this tiny little space with this tiny little annoying voice saying you aren’t good enough, don’t draw attention to yourself and make yourself as small as possible so they won’t notice you. Aza’s anxiety manifests itself in the form of OCD about germs. She is constantly reading Wikipedia pages about Human Micro Biome and freaking herself out but with any kind of obsessive compulsion you can’t just turn it off at will. It’s this tiny annoying voice in the back of your head telling you to constantly refresh your email because clearly if they don’t reply in the next 30 seconds then your email must have not gone through and the world is going to end. Or, for me at least, it can sometimes be the exact opposite. If you check your email and see you got an important email you will feel the need to reply or deal with it but, right now you cannot deal with because the very thought of dealing with it gives you so much dread and makes you want to throw up that it is easier to just not check your email and deal with the anxiety of not knowing then the anxiety of knowing.
It’s like trying to explain to someone that despite the fact I am deathly afraid of spiders and they bring out a side of me I don’t even personally know, I would rather grab one, with my bare hand, that had crawled into my hair and throw it on the floor then make a scene in a room full of classmates/peers (This actually happened and I still don’t know how to explain it). How do you explain to people that your anxiety of drawing attention to yourself is greater than your greatest fear? How does Aza Holmes explain to her mom that she drank hand sanitizer to clean out the germs from her boyfriend kissing her, and make it sound sane?
No one is normal but not everyone lives with a little voice inside their head telling them to do irrational things because we live in fear of something bigger then the irrational. How do you explain that to someone?
Aza learned the hard way how to explain to someone how it is living in your own head but she also learned how to ask for help. You shouldn’t have to struggle alone nor should you feel the need to change yourself to accommodate other people. As someone who dealt with a lot of social anxiety throughout junior high I always felt like an outsider. I always thought there was something wrong with me. It wasn’t until I started accepting the fact that maybe I was different and maybe I had a social limit that I started having better control over my anxiety. It wasn’t until Aza reached her breaking point that she realized despite her anxiety and OCD and intense fear of germs that she was the way she was. Mental illnesses aren’t about getting better because they are a part of who we are. They shouldn’t define us but we shouldn’t see it in terms of “getting better” instead we should see it in terms of “I have anxiety and some days I just want to hide in bed and ignore the way my heart pounds when I think about literally just checking my email, but I don’t let it define me or stop me from living.” It’s something I manage day by day and some days will be good and some days will be bad.
Aza kept reminding the people around her of that very fact. She wasn’t going to “get better” because her mental illness was a part of her but she also realized she wouldn’t let it stop her from living and trying to get out of her own head.
This really was a beautifully written story and as usual I tend to rant about myself but for me mental illness is deeply personal. Aza Holmes may not be a typical teenage girl but what is a “typical” teenage girl? She wants to fall in love, spend time with her best friend, and make out with a boy. She desperately wants to get out of her own head but life isn’t a happily ever after fairy tale where everything is right at the end. Life is messy full of unexpected events and consequences. Aza isn’t your stock female character destined to fall in love with the boy at the end. John Green out did himself by writing a teenage girl who is real, tangible, and most importantly like every other teenager out there-trying to find their place in the world while dealing with real issues. I loved every part of this book and I teared up a lot while reading it because it hit home in a very real way. It made me laugh, cry, sober up when I realized how true the words were but most importantly it made me realize I am not alone nor ever will be alone.
I think the most important thing books do is show us we are not alone. Thank you John Green for showing me I am not alone.