The story begins when Clay Jensen receives a package: seven audiotapes recorded by Hannah Baker, a girl he knew who recently killed herself. We know from the very beginning that this will not be an easy book to read: it will be filled with difficult concepts, sad stories, and emotional trauma. Fasten your seatbelts, Shmoopers.
According to Hannah, the people on her tapes are to blame for her suicide. Clay is obviously on the tapes, but he can't see why. He's compelled to listen to find out, but the idea ties his brain in knots. This conflict stays with him through the entire book, and will probably stay with him for the rest of his life.
When Clay finally gets to his tape, Hannah reveals that she doesn't actually blame him for her suicide. But Clay is starting to realize that even though he didn't do anything bad to Hannah, he let rumors about her stand in the way of their relationship. If he hadn't held back, he might have been able to make a positive difference in her life. This idea complicates his whole outlook on life: nothing is the way he thought it was before he started listening to the tapes.
Hannah's death and Clay's possible role in it is hard for Clay to take (we can only imagine). He knows Hannah's decision was an act of self-destruction and he's angry that he didn't do anything to stop it. The normally passive Clay gets so mad that he punches a fence and cuts his hand. All of the emotion that has been building up inside him is finally released and – ouch! – there's your climax.
What happens to the twelve people on the tapes? Does Jessica report her rape? Is Mr. Porter fired? Does Bryce realize the major error of his ways? These questions haunt us more and more as Hannah's accusations pile up. Most pressingly, we want to know how the tapes have affected Clay. And lucky us, he's one of the only characters whose post-tapes fate is revealed to us. (Not before some major uncertainty, though.) Read on!
After staying up all night with the tapes, Clay decides he has to face the music and go to school. He risks running in to the other kids on the tapes (and worst of all, Mr. Porter), but he decides to go. At least we know that he will be able to move on with his life, even if it's tough.
The conclusion of this book is really moving. Clay has been deeply affected by Hannah's tapes and instead of wallowing in his anxiety, he takes some action. He puts aside fears about his reputation and reaches out to Skye Miller, potentially saving another young girl from Hannah's fate. We can't know for sure how this turns out (we only hear him say her name, after all), but it's a satisfying conclusion that makes us feel like Hannah's death was not in vain.