Review: What We Left Behind by Robin Talley
I was very pleased to have been given an ARC of What We Left Behind, the newest release from Robin Talley. This book was very emotional and thought provoking for me. I hope you enjoy my review and check out this well-crafted novel. Many thanks to Harlequin Teen for the promotional copy and I must apologize for taking so long getting my review live when I read this book back in October, but I tend to struggle when topics hit close to home. All of the thoughts are my own and I was in no way compensated for my review.
Category: New Adult, Contemporary, LGBT
Publication: October 27th 2015; Harlequin Teen
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?
“It feels like everything’s changed. Like it’ll be different when we do see each other again. Like now that we’re in different places we’re turning into different people, or something.”
What We Left Behind was a poignant and well crafted story that features a realistic relationship while tackling the issues that come with self discovery. It was heartfelt and heartbreaking at times. I think it is always hard for me to read contemporary, as it isn’t my go-to genre, when I rather escape reality and get lost in a fantasy. However, this book was smart, easy to read and I loved the dual POV. It also had some real lasting effects on my psyche. If you are writing this book off as, thinking it may be hard for non-queer folk to read this book because they think they can’t relate–just as I thought I would hate reading straight romance–is a complete and total farce. We need diverse books and if the ‘norms’ don’t start reading them, then these books may never find their audience. There are so many who crave diverse books, in hopes to realize that they too are not alone, and diverse books are way too rare, so take some advice and read outside your comfort zone.
So let’s move onto plot and start off by saying, What We Left Behind is a great story about 2 people who fall in love at first sight and the rest is about self discovery and how love can evolve with or without you. These characters were so real and well crafted that they reminded me of plenty of my college friends and I couldn’t help but reminisce about my own evolving sexuality while I was in my first years of college. If you want to read about how hard and sometimes how easy it is to fall in love but through the lens of some very diverse and queer characters, I highly recommend this book. If you are looking for a detailed explanation of queer studies, then I would say read this as a fictional love story, as that is what it truly is.
One thing that was amazing about this love story is that the main characters never struggled with being together, but more about who they really are and how to deal with being apart. They are young, impressionable and when you are off at college and you meet people who’ve had vastly different experiences as yourself, you can’t help but ponder where you fit into this vast world of crazy pronouns, acronyms, and diversity. Being gay, being genderqueer, being trans, falling onto the rainbow spectrum at all, is hard; it is hard to be different, it is hard to be politically correct, and it is very hard to be strong enough to be who you are. One thing I love and many could learn from Robin Talley’s expert craft, is that all the questioning of ourselves is the most important part of becoming who we are. If these characters didn’t put themselves through the ringer and beat themselves up and learn and explore–how would they ever discover their true selves?
Most of the plot has to do with Toni and her conflict with how to identify and where Gretchen, her perfect girlfriend, fit into her future. One thing I loved was how seamlessly Talley uses Toni’s struggle with pronouns and weaves it into the narrative and I have to say at times it was obvious and other times as Toni switched stances, I never even picked up on the fact that I was reading traditional pronouns or not! Even as I write this review, I am struggling with which pronouns to use, because damn, terminology is hard and it is so not cut and dry. I think this is why the author chose to use the genderqueer terminology as the safest identifier for what Toni was going through and I understood that a lot of this was part of the plot, due to the fact that our main character was struggling with how to identify themselves. Which is exactly what this book is about. College & the new adult genre, is about getting out on our own, discovering who we are in times of struggle or triumph, and figuring if the person we are now is the same as what we left behind in adolescence.
Is this book free of issues? No, not at all. I was overwhelmed with the angst and selfishness of a lot of the characters throughout the book. But the theme, as I have said many times already, is about self discovery and I think the book represents how back and forth and self-centered we can be in order to grow. This is, however, one of the few times I actually adored Toni & Gretchen’s love at first sight and cliched perfect relationship, because it became a complete juxtaposition to their relationship for the rest of the book. I also groaned over the straight and cisgender disdain from most of the characters. But you know what, I myself in my regular life, use derogatory terms for a lot of straight folks, so it’s real, it’s normal, it happens. Anyone who is perfectly politically correct all the time even in their thoughts are probably as rare as that unicorn puking rainbows. Not every book I read is realistic, not every plot or theme is perfect, but did it make me feel? Did I enjoy the structure and creativity? Do I think this book is worth reading? Yes, is the answer to all those questions, wholeheartedly, yes.