The moment Spencer meets Hope the summer before seventh grade, it’s . . . something at first sight. He knows she’s special, possibly even magical. The pair become fast friends, climbing trees and planning world travels. After years of being outshone by his older brother and teased because of his Tourette syndrome, Spencer finally feels like he belongs. But as Hope and Spencer get older and life gets messier, the clear label of “friend” gets messier, too.
Through sibling feuds and family tragedies, new relationships and broken hearts, the two grow together and apart, and Spencer, an aspiring scientist, tries to map it all out using his trusty system of taxonomy. He wants to identify and classify their relationship, but in the end, he finds that life doesn’t always fit into easy-to-manage boxes, and it’s this messy complexity that makes life so rich and beautiful.
Description taken from Goodreads. I received an advance copy of this book via the publisher in exchange for an honest review. These opinions are my own.
I’d have to read it again to be sure, and probably take a look at the finished version, but A Taxonomy of Love may just be the contemporary book I’ve been looking for all along.
The story has so many elements that are a huge YES for me. The first, most obvious one is that it follows the progression of our protagonists throughout the years. The book starts when Spencer and Hope are thirteen and ends when they’re nineteen. We get to see them develop as people along the way, watch them stretch and grow into themselves. I’ve mentioned before–numerous times, in fact, that I wanted to see more of this. The lack of seeing characters for more than a few chapters of their lives is what I previously viewed as an unfortunate weakness (and sometimes strength) of YA lit, but my hope for it has grown as I’ve come across books like Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s Twelve Days of Dash and Lily, Marie Lu’s Life Before Legend, and now Rachael Allen’s A Taxonomy of Love.
In fact, the book reminded me of many books (in good ways), but out of all of them, it reminded me of Better Off Friends the most.
Elizabeth Eulberg’s Better Off Friends has been a longtime favorite of mine because it has the friendship-to-love element and follows the development of the characters the same way that A Taxonomy of Love does. The reason why this book still manages to stand alone, and a large part of the reason why I have so much hope for it, is the significant gap in complexity. While Eulberg is the more veteran writer and certainly has her standouts as well, with this book Rachael Allen demonstrates stronger understanding of the subtle things that make characters real and moments memorable. A Taxonomy of Love surprised me again and again with its deeper undertones to the fluffy, contemporary plot and the shades to the characters.
What I really didn’t expect in approaching this read was a book that would bring me back to Amber Smith’s masterpiece The Way I Used to Be, which is one of the best books I’ve ever read on grief and sexual assault. A Taxonomy of Love deals heavily with the emotional baggage that Spencer and Hope carry around, and it doesn’t do it in the typical lazy fashion. No, instead, this book does it by demonstrating that even with hardship, life goes on. People continue to be happy, and gradually, so do you, even if happiness doesn’t come in the form you thought it would. The book demonstrates that life can really suck sometimes, and that best-laid plans can get thrown off the tracks.
I was so impressed with the way that Allen handled the character development. She unraveled everyone little by little, starting first with Hope and Spencer and branching out into the supporting cast. With Hope and Spencer, it’s pretty obvious. I mean–one of the biggest (and only) criticisms I have is that the time we see Spencer and Hope as 13-year-olds is pretty drawn out, to the point where I wanted to stop reading within the first 20%. After I got past it, I really respected Allen’s ability to completely switch gears and get into the head of her narrator, but the cringiness of middle-school Spencer and Hope was a bit too real for me.
Then I started to notice more.
By the end, no one character could be completely villainized. Each one had their own strengths and weaknesses, moments of greatness and moments of harshness. In particularly, I liked the relationships that Spencer and Hope had with their families. The relationships with the parents were especially positive, which is always a plus in YA. I also liked how endearing Allen made Spencer’s older brother, Dean. Oh, Dean. I actually wanted to see much more of him by the end of the book, but I got the feeling that the amount we see him was just the right amount. Any more and I may change how I feel about him. Dean isn’t nearly as deep or sweet as Spencer, but he cares about people too, just in a different way. Not everyone can be as selfless and conscientious as Spencer, and I found myself sympathizing with Dean. Even though I didn’t necessarily like him, I sympathized with him–even empathized with him–and that’s where a writer’s strength lies.
And in addition to the strength of the execution and character structures, the plot was more compelling. With Better Off Friends, as much as I love the book, 70% of it is Macallan and Levi getting into different relationships, causing unnecessary drama, and hurting a bunch of people (including each other) before finally confronting their feelings. With A Taxonomy of Love, we see just how much Spencer and Hope have to change as people before they’re ready for relationships and for each other. This is much more interesting, challenging to pull off, and true to life.
Ending notes? I loved this one, but I still think it could be stronger. As mentioned before, I wasn’t a fan of seeing so much of Spencer and Hope’s childhood. There’s only so much I can read phrases like “Oh my pancakes” before losing patience for seeing it in print. I understand and appreciate what Allen was trying to do, but I think she generally needs to trust her audience more. Amber Smith’s strength in The Way I Used to Be is how she never tells us anything about what the protag is going through. We just watch as her life goes down the drain. In relation to Hope’s grief, her gradual change in character, and the transitions throughout the story (like when Hope drastically switches back the same person) could be much less obvious and would be so much stronger if they were.
Overall, it’s a great story that makes me curious about Allen’s other works. Had high hopes for this one, but Rachel Allen surpassed all of them. Realllllllly want some changes made here and there to touch up the final product, but I’d be fine if it stays the same. Recommended for people who like their contemporaries flavored a bit more serious + gradual. 4 stars.