What We Left Behind by Robin Talley
Toni and Gretchen have the cutest relationship in their high school and have set the bar for love and all future relationships that their classmates dream of. But what looks perfect on the outside isn’t always so and when they go off to college, the two find their relationship buckling under the pressure of navigating their changing identities. In high school, Toni identified as genderqueer, but once at Harvard begins to explore other terms and feelings that have always been bubbling under the surface. Gretchen is left trying to understand everything from afar.
Romance Score: You’re Trying & Good Effort
Toni and Gretchen are adorable and sparks fly from the moment they first see each other. The sexy times are hot without being explicit and the kissing is on point. And, because we end up watching them navigate very difficult terrain, it feels like a realistic relationship. However, it also feels realistic because Toni treats Gretchen pretty terribly. It becomes all about Toni’s issues and what Toni is going through rather than an equal relationship.
Feminist Score: Good Effort
Firstly, this should probably be changed since the book is not really about feminism. But, both characters are empowered to make choices, own their identities and actions, and to feel free to be themselves – whatever that means. I think the book displays some wonderful examples of what it means to navigate expectations and how difficult it can be to feel like the “lesser” person in a relationship. I admired Gretchen’s struggle with why she chose NYU a lot because it seems to be something lots of people deal with when coupled up. And, Toni’s struggle gives a point by point map for thinking about gender, the binary vs spectrum, and the roles we choose and how we present them – something everyone should consider.
Diversity Score: A+ Success
This book has genderqueer, transgender, lesbian, and straight characters, so it definitely has that category covered. Additionally, there is a Korean character, several black characters, and a decent representation of regional differences (Northern vs Southern US, urban vs rural). It’s a little lacking on the economic lines and there were a few times where I felt the story was aided by the characters’ privilege, but that’s ok. I think this book is important because it’s not a “seriously traumatic QUILTBAG” book – there’s difficult issues and families aren’t always loving, but it’s not about depression, suicide, or violence.
I will note that, by the nature of Toni and Gretchen’s relationship, it’s a little “time for some definitions” in some sections, but it never crosses into “let me give you a lesson” territory. The explanations fit into the story fairly well and aren’t being shoehorned into the conversations. Rather, they flow from the characters’ experiences and emotions instead of from the need to get a point across.
NOTE: After reading a lot of other reviews, I’ve learned that many readers find the use of “genderqueer” and the portrayal of the community very problematic. I think this is one of those times where my personal lack of knowledge/non-identification was clearly a blindspot. I’m not going to change the score, but encourage you to do your own research.
Awesome Factor: Good Effort
I loved getting to know the characters and seeing them struggle to find the middle ground (or not) for their relationship. I thought Toni and Gretchen were great examples of what going to college feels like – especially how your life can change drastically in just a few days and it’s hard to translate to someone that’s not there with you just how big those changes are when it happens in the simplest details. I’m excited to see more characters on the gender spectrum and a wide spectrum of family reactions as well. I love Robin Talley’s writing style – the two person perspective works especially well here as we see the confusion on both sides of the relationship and the desperation as things begin to change.
Samantha – We don’t get to know her well until the end, but I loved that she played against stereotype.
“Nothing good in the history of ever has started with the words We need to talk.”
The characters are well developed and I really loved the dialogue and being in their heads (and I’m not a lover of first person).
Fun Author Fact
Talley is writing a lesbian retelling of MacBeth and I am SO EXCITED.
Is this worth a book hangover?
Yes. The characters are engaging and their relationship is beautiful. It’s also a great book for being introduced to what genderqueer and transgender mean – for those not identifying as such and, I think, for those struggling to understand where they live on the spectrum. Plus, the writing is awesome!
Read These Next
I’m going to recommend Talley’s other published book, Lies We Tell Ourselves for more teens struggling to fight preconceived notions and Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz about a girl trying to break off the labels and make a space to live in.
Post Author: Jess
Jess loves SFF – old and new school – and is learning to appreciate the more lovey-dovey YA under the careful tutelage of Anisha’s recommendations.