contemporary · lgbt · young adult

What We Left Behind – Robin Talley

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Blurb: “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 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 from good, or is love enough to keep them together?”

*I was sent this book by the publisher but this in no way affects my review*

*Toni uses “they/them” pronouns at the end of this book and so those will be used in this review until Robin Talley informs me otherwise*

There are so many things that attracted me to this book. For one, this is a story more about the relationship rather that how the relationship came about. For another, it’s realistic in terms of how a distance relationship is handled, and most importantly, it features a genderqueer character.

Quick definition of genderqueer for those who don’t know:

Genderqueer (n): a person who does not subscribe to conventional gender distinctions but identifies with neither, both or a combination of male and female genders.

As the “we need diverse books” outcry seems to be growing in numbers, there are a lot of books featuring trans characters dominating the shelves: recent books include The Art Of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson and George by Alex Gino. However, there doesn’t seem to be many books tackling genderqueer characters. Although genderqueer is a term that falls under the trans umbrella, genderqueer folks are a lot more fluid in their gender.

This book has so much complexity to it and that it’s hard to know where to start.

The plot is centered around Toni and Gretchen who are in a relationship and makes use of both “before and after” and dual perspectives to tell the story. While I’m getting slightly bored by books that follow this format, Robin Talley couldn’t have told this story in any other way. The reader sees the two characters going to university and through Gretchen’s perspectives we learn that the pair originally planned to go to the same university – Harvard – but Gretchen feared she would spend her time there focused entirely on Toni. Gretchen wanted the freedom to explore herself in an entirely new place with entirely new people and so applied (and got into) NYU. So there’s already some tension bubbling under the surface. As the story progresses, each chapter states how long it has been since the duo last saw each other.

Toni becomes involved with Harvard’s LGBT society where they meets a lot of interesting and diverse people. Being round this group and people gives Toni the freedom they’ve be waiting for to explore their identity. The most prominent internal monologue for me was this: “If I call myself trans I’m afraid people will think I’m a dude when truth is, I’m not really there.”

I found Toni a very frustrating character to read most of the time. They are relatively open with their gender, trying out different pronouns to see which best fits before abandoning pronouns only to use them again, which gives an insight into the thoughts of someone who identifies as non-binary. However, Toni is obsessed with putting other people into boxes and gets internally stressed when they can’t place people’s sexuality or gender. The most memorable scene that is an example of this is when some of the LGBT group are out together and Toni is unable to genderise a particular character until Toni spots the binder under the character’s shirt. They then automatically label them as trans and wonders if this character is on hormones and even internerally discusses with themselves how much this character “passes” as a specific gender.

(It actually reminded me of someone I used to know who would constantly force people into boxes. I had a conversation with them once about sexuality as I identify as bisexual and when I was asked if I’d ever date someone trans, I responded with “if I liked the person and enjoyed spending time with them, then yes. Genitals don’t matter to me” to which this person then said “well you’re pansexual then, not bisexual. But back to the actual review…)

Naturally Toni exploring their gender creates a big issue in their relationship with Gretchen because Toni never actually talks to Gretchen about well… anything. Toni lets Gretchen know they’ve started using pronouns, might try hormones but doesn’t actually discuss any feelings with Gretchen which ,as you would expect, feels like a punch in the face for her because she makes mistakes and Toni takes things badly. Something that’s pointed out later in the book when Gretchen says “you can’t be so hard on everyone, sometimes people make mistakes, say the wrong-” to which Toni responds “whatever” and shrugs it off.

It was really interesting seeing both sides of the relationship because Gretchen identifies as lesbian, but if her partner starts identifying as male and is thinking of transitioning, doesn’t that make Gretchen straight? This combined with the distance makes for a very stressful, complicated read but it felt real.

Anyone who’s ever had a distance relationship can relate to this: the time spent apart, wondering if anything will be different and if you’ve changed too much as people when you’re finally together.

The internal monologues of the characters -especially Gretchen – just added to the layers and I wanted to physically crawl into this book and just give Gretchen a hug.

You also have the horrific scenes where characters aren’t too accepting of trans people that just made me sick to read them, but you also had more accepting characters.

This book was just so well written.

If you are going to pick up any book in October, make sure you mark October 27th on your calendar because you don’t want to miss this book.

 
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