Title: What We Left Behind
Author: Robin Talley
Publisher: Harlequin Teen, 2015
Themes: Gender, binary identity, lesbianism, transgender, genderqueer, pronouns, starting college, relationships, romance
Genre: Contemporary YA/NA
Source: ARC received from publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. (Quotes from the ARC therefor subject to change.)
October Junior Year of High School Homecoming
Toni Even before I saw her, it was the best night of my life. It was Homecoming. I was about to walk into a ballroom full of people. A girl in a flouncy dress was clinging to my elbow, her photo-ready smile firmly in place, her left hand raised in a preparatory wave. I didn’t smile with her. I didn’t know if I could ever remember how to smile. I was happy, yeah—I was so, so, so happy that night—but I was terrified too. Any second now I was bound to throw up.
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? (Goodreads)
Why I like this book:
I think it is important to note two things; firstly this is not a story about a genderqueer teen, secondly this is one story and as with all stories, never purports to represent the genderqueer or the trans experience. It is 416 pages, so I read this on my commute to and forth between New York and Mamaroneck this week, and I was so engrossed I got on the wrong train and nearly ended up express in Stamford Connecticut.
This is the story of a young teen couple and their first love, and the challenge of a long distance relationship when they both head off to different colleges (albeit not too far, NYC & Boston!) More than that, it is the heart wrenching story of a young woman trying to figure out who she is, especially on the gender spectrum. Sexual diversity is s strong underlying theme in the novel and we get a glimpse into the lives of many who are coming to terms with who they are.
I truly loved Toni’s selfishness and felt for her process through her teens identifying first as a lesbian then as genderqueer and struggling in these pages, as she hangs with many new transgender friends with a growing sense of actually feeling more masculine. TallEy does a superb job with the typical and legitimate angst of this eighteen year-old and I find the choice to end with Tony still unsure about her identity fitting with the process he is going through. There are many intellectual discussions between the Harvard friends, which while it could feel like they were included to educate the reader about genderqueer and transgender issues, the use of pronouns etc, when I reflect on my heady arrogant university days, I found this a thoroughly authentic representation of the types of discussions I believe Tony, especially and Tony’s friends would have.
The story is told in first person POV by the two protagonists, alternating chapters, and with occasional flashbacks, and this dual perspective adds to the tension, empathy and great pacing of the novel. Gretchen is the more sympathetic protagonist, and yet despite her very clear lesbian identity from the get go, she moves through a lovely character arc of growing into an individual at NYU instead of just half of a (very loving) couple. There are a host of supporting characters who are well developed, diverse in ethnicity and not all likable (hey, that’s real.) I think the lack of straight friends and supportive straight characters, was perhaps the only thing I would have liked to see more of. Tony’s struggle and development over the course of the novel, feeling like she doesn’t fit in to the female gender, to contemplating becoming transgender in now way undermine the validity of the genderqueer identity, rather they underline the fluidity of the gender spectrum, the pressures we are still under to conform to society’s strict binary models and the reality of many young peoples’ questioning and confusion. We need to support the questioners just as much as we support those who know and embrace their identity. For this very reason I am thrilled to read and promote this model and will certainly be buying a copy for our school library.
What We Left Behind is a carefully crafted story about love, one teen’s struggle and ongoing journey to accept and express their gender and preferences, and the acceptance we all seek from family and friends. While it tackles deep and pressing personal issues, the two characters Toni and Gretchen are very believable and compelling, with typical and less typical identity struggles of freshman in competitive colleges. The fact that all the characters are so wonderfully flawed is one of the strengths of this novel. I think my favorite scene was the breakup, which was perfectly bittersweet.
There is a great list of genderqueer/non-binary resources on this Tumblr Transgender Teen Survival Guide
This is also a great book if you have every wondered what the Q in LGBTQIA stands for. It’s over 400 pages, but I think it could be a great read/discussion book for a high school gay/straight alliance group.
Thanks for the great review. I can’t wait to read this!
This is a complex novel and I can see how you became so engrossed. Can’t imagine how challenging a struggle like this is for a teen. But, it does sound like it is a journey that would be helpful for teens learning to embrace their gender. Excellent review.