Taylor Markham is seventeen, and has lived at the boarding school by Jellicoe Road since she was abandoned by her mother when she was eleven. She's just reluctantly accepted the post as leader for her house (boarding school dorm - think Harry Potter), which means caring for the well-being of the younger girls in the house, as well as masterminding the territory war between the town kids, the boarding school kids and the group of cadets who camp near the town for a number of weeks each year.
Hannah, the only grown-up that Taylor is really close to, just disappears one day, leaving behind the house she's been slowly restoring over the years, and an unfinished manuscript, which tells the story of four teenagers who met on Jellicoe Road more than twenty years ago. No one wants to tell Taylor where she's gone. Then she discovers that the leader for this year's cadets is none other than Jonah Griggs, the boy who helped her run away years ago, but who also betrayed her by getting them found. Hannah's disappearance and Jonah's reappearance in Taylor's life sparks a series of events that will finally lead to her discovering why she was abandoned by her mother, what really happened to her father, and what may be in store for her in the future.
I'm not doing a very good job of summarising this book, which started out very confusing (you see everything from Taylor's rather surly POV, and you're just plunged immediately into the action of what seems like the story of a very confusing and intricate way of playing 'Capture the Flag'. Taylor doesn't come across as very likable, and I was a bit confused as to how she had any friends at all. Still, the book has garnered a slew of awards, and came very highly rated on a number of review sites that I trust, so I kept reading, which is good, because it was SO worth it. Trusting her readers' intelligence, and ability to pay attention, Marchetta portions out new information sparingly with each chapter, making you grasp more and more of the big picture, and changing your opinions about the characters involved as the story progresses.
Another thing that was initially confusing in the book is the sections about the four other characters, who at first seem to have nothing to do with Taylor at all, but which you come to realise are extracts from Hannah's manuscript. This isn't spoilery, by the way, it's revealed fairly early on in the book, and I figured mentioning it here may help other readers accept it as an important supplement to the main story. It does become apparent why we're being allowed to read along with Taylor, and just take my word that you'll miss out on important stuff if you skip the sections in cursive.
This book made me laugh, and cry, and desperately want to hug several of the characters. If I were a teenager still, I'd want Taylor to be one of my friends, and as an adult, I want to embrace her and help her resolve her many understandable and conflicting emotions, not to mention her trust issues, fear of letting anyone get close to her, and her fear of abandonment. Then there's Jonah, the mysterious and brooding boy from her past, who killed his own father. Suffice to say, neither Taylor nor Jonah have any reason to particularly trust or rely on adults, and the running away incident in their past means there is a deep well of tension between them when they meet again. While the chief focus of the plot is Taylor trying to discover where Hannah went, and what actually happened with her parents, there is also a strong romantic subplot, which for all that this is a YA novel, took my breath away.
I've been putting this review off, trying desperately to get across why EVERYONE should read this book, and what a wonderful reading experience it turned out to be. Once I got through the first rather confusing chapters (which are still excellently written, just very sparing on helpful exposition), I was completely engrossed and I resented having to put the book down for things like sleep and doing my job. I read during the breaks between lessons, and every chance I got. I love this book, I quite possibly love every single significant character in it. I'll be very surprised if this book doesn't end up in my top 3 of the year.