Author(s): Robin Talley
Edition: ARC, 416 pages
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Publication Date: October 27, 2015
Source: For review from publicist
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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?
I know that sounds like a typical romance, and in some ways it is very typical. Both Toni, who I am going to refer to as T from now on, and Gretchen are experiencing a brand new place and brand new people for the first time. Neither of them have a group of friends that they are going to college with, and the one person that they could both always count on isn't right there for support.
But it is also atypical in the way that Robin Talley portrays T's and Gretchen's lives and the frank realizations about identity, gender, and sexuality. The reason I refer to T as T is because T is trying to understand T's identity and how T presents. So for parts of the book T does not use gendered pronouns to talk about anyone, in other parts T uses "they", and in other parts T tries out "ze" and "hir". T also thinks through multiple different gender options: for much of the book, T identifies as genderqueer, but then that doesn't quite fit. Maybe nonbinary or genderfluid works better. Or maybe it’s one of the multitude of other "labels" T tries out. All T knows is that not one is a perfect fit.
If you feel a little confused just reading that sentence, then you get a sense of what not just T, but Gretchen, is going through. While T is struggling to identify T's gender, and what that means, Gretchen is struggling to find her own place within T's journey. I found the journey that T goes on to be very authentic in voice. Identity, any sort of identity, let alone an identity that is typically considered out of the heteronormative identity that general society conducts itself in, can be confusing to figure out. And trying to fight certain stereotypes, which are even perpetuated within the LGBTQ+ community, can be difficult to overcome.
But that is where Robin Talley's beautiful writing comes into play. She really crafts this journey well, so much so that I think even a straight cisgender identifying reader can relate. It is ultimately about finding out who you are, and while T's struggle is based in gender, Gretchen acts as a counterpoint to that with a broader struggle of just who she really is as a person. I find myself feeling as a part of the story, rooting for T and Gretchen; commiserating with them through the hard times and celebrating with them through the joyful times. I would definitely be friends with both and I just really feel for the struggle that their relationship and they themselves are going through.
Not only is Robin Talley's characterization great, her prose is beautiful in it's simplicity and authenticity . One of my favorite lines is found near the beginning of the book, "I never imagined that being one half of a whole could make you feel more whole all by yourself" (page 24). I just love how simple that idea is, but it has such a profound effect. There are other great lines, some heartbreaking, others uplifting, all throughout the book. Intriguing characterization and solid writing are the two things I devour in books; luckily What We Left Behind has both in abundance.
I think this is an important book within the young adult book world. Robin Talley opens the avenue for conversation about gender identity, LGBTQ+ rights, navigating college, first romances and first heartbreaks all within the confines of 416 pages. I really encourage you to go out and read What We Left Behind for yourself; I think you'll really enjoy it.
If you liked the sound of that book, check out Robin's critically acclaimed (and hopefully, soon to be award winning) debut novel:
Lies We Tell Ourselves
Lies We Tell Ourselves
Book Cover: 4/5
Book Title: 5/5
Overall: 46/50: A-