Published by Harlequin Teen on October 27, 2015
Genres: Contemporary, LGBT, New Adult, Young Adult
From the critically acclaimed author of Lies We Tell Ourselves comes an emotional, empowering story of what happens when love isn't enough to conquer all.
Toni and Gretchen are the couple everyone envied in high school. They've been together forever. They never fight. They're deeply, hopelessly in love. When they separate for their first year at college—Toni to Harvard and Gretchen to NYU—they're sure they'll be fine. Where other long-distance relationships have fallen apart, their relationship will surely thrive.
The reality of being apart, however, is a lot different than they expected. As Toni, who identifies as genderqueer, falls in with a group of transgender upperclassmen and immediately finds a sense of belonging that has always been missing, Gretchen struggles to remember who she is outside their relationship.
While Toni worries that Gretchen, who is not trans, just won't understand what is going on, Gretchen begins to wonder where she fits in Toni's life. As distance and Toni's shifting gender identity begins to wear on their relationship, the couple must decide—have they grown apart for good, or is love enough to keep them together?
Robin Talley’s first book, LIES WE TELL OURSELVES, was one of my favorites of 2014. When I saw she had a new book, one about a genderqueer protagonist, I couldn’t wait to read it. Books are slowly becoming more diverse, but it’s still rare to find one that explores gender identity. Just like the author’s debut, WHAT WE LEFT BEHIND is a book that touched me deeply, made me think a lot, and is one I want everyone to read.
WHAT WE LEFT BEHIND kind of straddles the line between Young Adult and New Adult. Toni and Gretchen are eighteen, just starting their first year of college. That’s an important time for a lot of people, because it’s the first time you’re on your own, with the chance to explore your interests and start to figure out who you really are. I think the author captured the chaos and freedom of that time quite well, when you’re trying new things, juggling old and new friendships, distant parental expectations, and maybe even an ongoing relationship.
I like just about everything in WHAT WE LEFT BEHIND, but a few things stand out. One is the relationship between Toni and Gretchen. Very rarely do YA books show the meat of a relationship — so much of the time, a book is focused on getting the characters together. In WHAT WE LEFT BEHIND, Toni and Gretchen have been a couple for two years. So they’re sure they can handle the distance between Boston and New York City. For a couple that loves each other as much as they do, a few hundred miles is no big deal. Nevermind the fact that Gretchen didn’t tell Toni she applied to NYU, instead of following Toni to Boston. That’s fine, because they don’t fight. But when you don’t fight, and you don’t really talk about the issues that bother you, how well does a relationship work? And when you’re used to being Toni-and-Gretchen, what happens when you’re just Toni or just Gretchen? Does love change, or does it always stay the same?
I really appreciated that the author delved into Toni and Gretchen’s relationship. Both of their perspectives are given, and while the adorable first meeting/hookup scene is included, there’s so much more than that in the book. There’s actual relationship growing pains, and while at first their relationship is perfect, it becomes less perfect when Toni feels unable to talk to Gretchen about all the new life things. How can Gretchen be the perfect girlfriend when it seems like Toni doesn’t want to see her?
The second standout of WHAT WE LEFT BEHIND is Toni’s gender explorations. At the start of the book, Toni identifies as genderqueer. At Harvard, Toni becomes friends with upperclassman who are all over the gender spectrum, which makes Toni think a lot more about where, exactly, Toni belongs. Is Toni gender nonconforming, gender fluid, non-binary, trans? Something else? Toni’s never felt like a girl, but being surrounded by others who know their gender identity, and also having the freedom for the first time ever to explore options, sends Toni on a quest to try everything from different pronouns to chest binding to more. Toni thinks about this a lot, and talks about with the new friends a lot, which resulted in me getting a good introduction and look into all the different labels out there, and why people would identify with/use different ones. Thanks to Toni, I also started thinking a lot more about pronouns, and how they reinforce gender constantly. Here’s a little example — it’s taking a lot of conscious thought to not use “she” or “he” to refer to Toni in this review. For another ah-ha moment, look at how Toni refers to others and how Gretchen refers to Toni in the first ~50 pages.
With Toni’s mad rush to figure everything out, Toni sometimes comes across, as well, somewhat of a jerk. Toni gets super wrapped up in figuring out the perfect pronouns and labels, and also fitting other people into neat little labeled boxes. Toni is often quite judgmental of other people. At first, that bugged me — I wanted to give Toni a good whack — but then I got it. If I wanted to be sure of myself and not constantly trying to figure out what label fit me, I’d probably act the same exact way.
WHAT WE LEFT BEHIND is a book that spoke to me and made me think. I enjoy books like that, especially books that push outside the boundaries of the conventional boy and girl fall in love the end stories.
In the near future, I’ll have an interview with Robin on the blog, so be sure to check back!
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