Book Review: What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

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Title: What We Left Behind

Author: Robin Talley

Published: Harelequin Teen, 2015, 405 pages

Recommended if you like: Books with Diverse Characters, Books set in college, Character driven stories, LGBTQIA+, Gender Identity exploration

Read-a-Like: I am J, Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Not Otherwise Specified

Rating: 5 out of 5 Top Hat Pendents

First Line: Even before I saw her, it was the best night of my life.

*Toni switches pronouns a lot in this book, so for simplicity I’m going to stick with they/them for Toni in this review.

I haven’t had a chance to read Lies We Tell Ourselves yet, but I’ve heard only awesome things about it, so I was pumped to read Talley’s new book. In it we have Toni and Gretchen who are their high school’s ultimate OTP. Basically you had me at adorable lesbian couple, but it just got better from there. The two go to different colleges and… predictably… their relationship gets rocky. Toni identifies on the trans spectrum and while Toni talks about pronouns and labels and spectrums and binaries to their new friends, Toni doesn’t talk about it with Gretchen. Which leaves Gretchen feeling left out, and confused and scared to say anything lest she says the wrong thing.

Most of all I’m glad we get both Gretchen and Toni’s POV. In Toni’s head we see them grappling with their identity. What pronouns to use. Does Toni feel genderqueer, non-binary, gender non-conforming, trans, male? WHAT DOES TONI FEEL? Toni doesn’t know and while they work it out we see how complicated that process can be. Every other YA book (or non YA book for that matter) I’ve read on the Trans spectrum has been a person very confident in their identity going through the process of transitioning, so it is super fucking fantastic to see someone who doesn’t feel like any of the labels work. I also love that Toni has a crew of queer friends because that’s both highly possible and a genuine reality for many, especially once you get to college. I mean, I hang out with like two straight people, maybe three. We so rarely get to see that in YA books and it made me very happy.

I also loved Gretchen’s point of view. She feels guilty for being the one to change their original plan to go to college in the same city, but her whole life has revolved around Toni since they met. Gretchen wants to see what it means to be Gretchen, and not half of Gretchen-Toni like she’s been for two years. Toni has been a bright spotlight that sort of drowned Gretchen out. Of course Toni shouldn’t change at all, but it’s okay for Gretchen to want to be her own person.

And I love seeing how hard it is for Gretchen when Toni is changing labels three times a week and doesn’t tell Gretchen about it. Every time they talk, Gretchen feels like she doesn’t know what to say anymore because she’s ten steps behind on the processing journey. It’s hard for her too. It’s hard in a different way than Toni, but it’s still hard. Meanwhile Gretchen has a harder time making a big group of friends and ends up hanging out mostly with her Gay Boy Carroll and roommate Sam.

I wasn’t a huge fan of Carroll as a person, but I really enjoyed his inclusion as a character. He’s not particularly sensitive to the whole trans thing, which doesn’t help Gretchen wrap her head around it either. His reaction to everything is a bit selfish and extreme, and while I want Gretchen to go get some other friends, I knew Carroll in college. Hell, I know him now. I love that we have gotten to a point where we can include a queer character who is kind of an ass hole without sending the message that every queer person is also an ass hole.

This book does so many things and it does them so well. It’s a completely authentic portrayal of a high school romance falling apart, not because anyone did anything wrong, but just because in college you become different people, and that’s okay. It shows areas of the queer/gender identity spectrum we haven’t seen in YA before in a way that feels real and immediate and relatable. It shows both the person struggling with identity, and the person that struggle most affects, presenting both their experiences and not making any judgements.

But most of all, it feels real. It feels like I knew these people in college, and maybe that I was some of these people in college. It lets them be who and where they are so clearly I completely believe I’ll meet them one day at a bar.

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