(review originally posted on my LiveJournal account: http://intoyourlungs.livejournal.com/22089.html)
I've been hearing about Melina Marchetta ever since I started following blogs that focus their reviews on YA. Marchetta is a bit of a legend among YA readers, and I think I've only ever read ONE bad review for one of her books (this one actually). Every time I looked up Marchetta's books though, they were never in stock at any of the book stores I shop at. I never worried too much about it because I have so many books to read anyway. Finally, sometime this summer, I caved and ordered this book and another of Marchetta's popular titles (Saving Francesca) online and finally got around to reading this at the beginning of the month. GUYS, I am kicking myself so hard for waiting so long to read this book. All the praise is completely deserved; this book is AMAZING. Seriously, I think it's the best book I've read all year, and one of the best books I've ever read EVER. All of that is a bit of a disclaimer for how much of a gush-fest this review is going to be.
All right, let's start with characters, because that's a big part of where this book really shines. This book being a contemporary novel, its focus on characters isn't all that surprising, but rather, expected, but Marchetta breathes life into this teenagers and I loved every single one of them. Taylor Markham is one of the best examples of how to write a badass heroine without making her annoying. Taylor is brash, quite prickly on the outside and very angry at the world. However, she also has a soft side that pokes its head out every once in awhile, she's vulnerable and admits to it, and her angst over her mother abandoning her and Hannah seemingly doing the same never devolves into whine fests or emo diatribes. Despite Taylor being a bit of a loner and not being prone to letting people in, she does have friends, and I loved them to pieces too. Franny and Taylor's friendship was pitch-perfect, and their understanding of another was extremely sweet and well done. Similarly, Taylor's unlikely friendship (and more) with fellow rivals Chaz and Jonah Griggs was touching and gave me the warm and fuzzies. Also, like Taylor is how to properly do a female badass, Jonah is the perfect example of how to do a tortured, mysterious loner-boy without making them overwrought and annoying. His and Taylor's romance was also pretty scorching, and that's a lot coming from me; I am particularly picky with romance. Marchetta got that pitch-perfect too though; these two start off not liking each other too much because of something that happened between the two of them, but they slowly learn to like and respect each other again, which turns to friendship (wrought with sexual tension) which turns to romance. It was perfectly paced and was sexy without being gratuitous.
These well realized characters and friendships were also present in the concurrent story being presented in the novel through Hannah's manuscript; the inseparable foursome were tied together by tragedy, but found so much happiness in each other. Their bonds were almost palpable they were so intense. Their story was so incredibly by the end though.. it honestly broke my heart. I also loved how Marchetta so seamlessly weaved their story into the main story. A lot of reviews I read expressed that they were initially confused about this side-story, but I don't remember being confused at all; I assumed from the get-go that those events were things that had actually happened to Hannah (though I'm not sure why I thought that), I just wasn't sure which of the foursome was actually Hannah. I also figured out pretty quickly that it probably had to do with Taylor's parents. So, at that point, it was just figuring out who was who and piecing it all together. Watching the two stories come together and reading the revelations that came with it (though I guessed half of them) enhanced the reading experience -- I had to keep reading to figure out what happened to these four people and how it was all going to end.
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that this book has turf wars, which is just as awesome and fun as it sounds (though the characters in the book take it quite seriously). See, Taylor is the leader of the Jellicoe school, and every year, Cadets camp out near their school as part of some sort of nature thing they do (the school's sort of out in the bush). So, whenever the cadets come around, Jellicoe school, the Townies (kids who live in the nearby town) and the Cadets fight for land. It doesn't usually involve *actual* fighting (though it does come to that at some points), but it's more of a catch-the-flag kind of deal. So, Taylor has to constantly meet up and negotiate with the Townie and Cadet leaders (Chaz and Jonah, who I mentioned above -- this is why her eventual friendship with them was especially sweet; they went from being enemies to friends [and boyfriend] aww~!)
The actual plot itself was also amazing (like everything else in this book). Along with the turf wars, Taylor is coming to terms with being abandoned by her mother, as her care-taker Hannah has up and left without any explanation and Taylor is starting to feel like she's being abandoned all over again. Along with that, she's also dealing with the turf wars, dealing with Chaz and Jonah, coming to terms with the events that transpired between her and Jonah three years before and reading Hannah's manuscript, which completely and totally absorbs her, especially as she starts to realize that a lot of the events accounted in the story are directly related to her. It all came together beautifully and harmoniously and heart-breakingly. The story in Hannah's manuscript was equally absorbing and I loved those sections just as much as Taylor's; they slowly revealed details that became very important to Taylor's story, and also provided background for some of the less important stuff, like the Turf Wars. That story was so very sad as well though. Did I mention that these stories is sad? Because they are. There is a LOT of sad stuff that happens in this book and I think I cried about 3-4 times while reading (though the first 2-3 were little cries -- the ending of the book made me had a big fat cry). In all this sadness though, there's hope: hope that one can move on from the past, hope that you can depend on people and that people are there for you, hope that despite all the crap that happens to you, it can be better.
I would also be a little remiss if I didn't mention the writing. Marchetta is one of those awesome writers that manages to write lyrically without devolving into purple prose. The main story is told from Taylor's first-person perspective, and her voice is a little brash and mirrors her character, but it also exposes all the insecurities and vulnerability she feels. Her sections, while similar in style to Hannah's manuscript, were still distinct and I could tell the two apart, even if Hannah's parts hadn't been printed in italics.
Final Verdict: I love this book. I love it so much that I'm ridiculously sad I will never get to read this book for the first time ever again, because this was seriously one of the most rewarding reading experiences I've ever had. I'm so glad I bought this book on a whim and I'm also kicking myself for not doing so sooner. The story within these pages is one of the most beautifully sad, but hopeful ones I've ever read. It's got an amazing cast of characters, perfect pacing, a slightly unconventional presentation (presented two stories at the same time that don't look like they're related but really are), an amazing romance and stellar writing. I seriously cannot praise this book enough and I can't wait to read the rest of Marchetta's work.