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A Taxonomy of Love


A Taxonomy of Love

Growing up in Georgia, Spenser realizes the day his life changes --- age 13, in the sweltering season of summer, when Hope Birdsong moves into the house next door. With white hair and a thirst for adventure, Hope seems like the friend Spenser has waited for all his life. Soon they’re climbing trees and talking about everything from interesting bugs to personal history, and Spenser finds himself nursing a next-door-neighbor crush of epic proportions. With her, he’s not “the kid with Tourette’s,” he’s just “Spence.” But as the years go on, Spenser and Hope find themselves slowly separated by everything from romance to loss, while all the while they grapple with love, life, finding somewhere to belong --- and finding their way back to each other, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. Told over a span of multiple years, A TAXONOMY OF LOVE explores growing up and building --- and rebuilding --- relationships, as Spenser tries to win back the girl he met that one day in summer.

Rachael Allen’s A TAXONOMY OF LOVE is an example of the way an author can truly capture a story, brimming with so much complexity and vitality that it seems like sitting down in someone else’s life: beautiful and messy and perfect. As the narrator, Spenser gives the story so much of its energy and heart. Awkward, honest and hilarious, he’s more than the common trope of a teenage boy, a jock or a nerd. Though he loves bugs, he’s also a talented wrestler --- he doesn’t fit into a single category, and that makes him so much more interesting to read. It is also wonderful to read about a neurodiverse teenager, as Allen weaves Spenser’s Tourette syndrome into the story with a careful balance. Tourette syndrome is not the overriding focus of the plot or a substitute for Spenser’s identity, an underdeveloped aspect of his life, or an idealized version of living with a disability --- Tourette syndrome is simply another part of Spenser, and an undercurrent to the novel.

"Rachael Allen’s A TAXONOMY OF LOVE is an example of the way an author can truly capture a story, brimming with so much complexity and vitality that it seems like sitting down in someone else’s life: beautiful and messy and perfect."

Allen doesn’t limit complexity to her major characters, either, and there are moments in the story when Allen peels back the layers of the minor characters and powerfully demonstrates that people don’t fit into the labels society creates for them. Spenser’s family is also honest, lifelike and present. They are both his support system and his yearning for belonging, as he struggles to make sense of tradition and ancestry in the South. Having lived in Georgia for her whole life, Allen’s knowledge of the South means that it is not simply a background for her story --- it is a mindset, almost a character of its own, with community, spirit and, of course, peach tea, shaping each individual, and as much a part of Spenser’s story as he is a part of its own. While many authors cut their characters off from the world around them, A TAXONOMY OF LOVE meaningfully discusses the history of racism and the Confederacy in the south, giving the story a depth and realism that many older critics do not believe exists in YA.  

Of course, no review would be complete without touching on the relationship of Spenser and Hope, the central aspect of the story. Their friendship --- and falling in and out of it --- is chronicled throughout their teenage years with sweetness and humor, and Allen captures every moment of heartbreak, frustration, happiness, and confusion with detail and heart that makes for a wonderful experience for the reader. Grief is also a part of their story, and Allen portrays it with honesty and care. If the opening scene of the movie Up was expanded into Carl and Ellie’s teen years, it might look something like this novel, with the same sense of adventure and earnestness.

Overall, A TAXONOMY OF LOVE is a novel that just about any reader will enjoy --- especially those who liked Jared Reck’s A SHORT HISTORY OF THE GIRL NEXT DOOR. Like good Southern peach tea --- authentic, heartwarming and refreshing (at least, I think so, but I am from New Jersey!) --- Rachael Allen fills her novel with layers that enliven every page and leave readers craving more.

Reviewed by Rachel R., Teen Board Member on January 29, 2018

A Taxonomy of Love
by Rachael Allen