Elle is furious as she moves into her own apartment. She is just about to turn 16 and well knows she is too young to live away from her mother. But Donald, her mother's new boyfriend, doesn't care to deal with a teenager, so her mother is moving her out. Although her mother has tried to talk her into buying a beautiful pedigreed cat from a pet store to keep her company, Elle insists on choosing one from the local animal shelter. And, while her mother protests, she picks the ugliest feline she can find --- a one-eyed tom with chunks of fur missing and a "touch me not" manner.
Back at Elle's new apartment, she meets Frank for the first time. A small, slight guy in his 30s, who reminds Elle of a leprechaun, he lives in the apartment next door with his girlfriend, Molly. She notices that he has an odd voice, but also registers how kind his smile is as he welcomes her to the building and offers help. As Elle squirms with horror, her mother asks Frank to keep an eye on her, since she is on her own for the first time and "…Turned eighteen barely a minute ago."
After her liar of a mother heads off to a date with Donald, Elle's cat (soon to be named Toto) escapes. Frank helps her retrieve her new pet. Since he's a vet tech, he shows her how to hold the creature to avoid being clawed or bitten. Afterward, Elle shocks herself by confiding in Frank her true reason for picking out the unlovable Toto: to make her mother angry.
Elle finds herself in even more of a fury the next morning, thanks to an email message from her mother announcing she will be gone on a cruise with her boyfriend during Elle's birthday. She seeks retaliation before heading off to start classes in a new school. To goad her mother, she shaves off the long red hair that is so similar to her mother's. She thinks (hopes) that her new hairdo makes her look like a young Annie Lennox. But when she gets to school, she discovers others have chosen to brand her by spray-painting "QUEER" on her locker. That's when she meets Shane, who introduces Elle to her group of friends, including male romantic partners Bob and Bobby, along with the reticent Wilbur, who enjoys cross-dressing.
As Elle spends more time with Frank, she finds herself thinking about him more and more, in spite of his obvious love for his girlfriend. Molly also welcomes Elle into their home, serving her comfort food, making her birthday cake, and inspiring her with some amazing photography. But it’s Frank who is Elle's best friend. Although he has not been anything more than kind to her, Elle can't help knowing that she’s beginning to have romantic feelings toward him. So she’s devastated when she finally realizes that he’s "FTM" (female to male) transgender. What, she wonders, does it say about her own sexuality that she’s attracted to him? Is she doomed to always be alone in the world, feeling that she can never truly know anyone else?
JUMPSTART THE WORLD is a quick page-turner, thanks to Catherine Ryan Hyde’s sensitive and understated handling of a topic that easily could be tabloidesque. Elle is a sympathetic character in an unusual predicament, surrounded by an intriguing cast who defies being stereotyped. (Elle's mother is an exception; she is the one character I found to be almost unbelievably despicable. Hyde just manages, by the end of the book, to avoid making her a one-note caricature of a villainess.) Elle's story is a fascinating read --- and one readers won't easily forget.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on November 16, 2011