Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Release: October 27, 2015
From the critically acclaimed author of Lies We Tell Ourselves comes an emotional, empowering story of what happens when love isn't enough to conquer all.Occasionally, I finish a book and immediately adopt the opinion that everyone in the entire world needs to read this novel. Sometimes, this sensation is sparked by a well-crafted story, full of beautiful writing, complex characters, and an impeccable plot. Other times, I get this feeling from reading an important book, full of scenes, characters, and ideas that will make readers better people. But when a book is both very, very good and very, very important, I feel an even stronger desire to give a copy to everyone I know. What We Left Behind is that kind of book.
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?
What I love about Robin Talley's sophomore novel is this: not only does it spotlight an underrepresented group—transgender and non-binary people—but it shows the messy, painful confusion that comes with gender. This story defies simplicity, from Toni's efforts to uncover a gender identity to other characters' inability to understand Toni's struggle. Talley portrays each character's emotional turmoil so vividly that readers will have no choice but to become absorbed in each person's life. The result is a personal yet universal story—the kind of tale that only belongs to a few characters but that can resonate with widespread readers.
Even better, because What We Left Behind tackles the complex issue of gender, the storyline leaves plenty of room for characters to be problematic without being portrayed as terrible people. Most characters, even the protagonists, think questionable thoughts and make dubious remarks, a truth that may sound critical but that I bestow as praise. Why do I say this? Because all too often, both in fiction and in real life, we tend to put people into boxes and pit two crowds against each other: good versus bad. But in reality, no one is perfect, everyone is problematic at times, and the best we can do is forgive and educate each other. So even though some characters make hurtful comments about Toni's identity confusion, even though Toni criticizes two roommates for being "too feminine" and says they cannot talk about feminism until they stop posting pictures of themselves in bikinis, many characters are portrayed as genuinely kind and simply confused. It is absolutely possible to make problematic comments and still be a good person—confusion and ignorance do not have to equal intolerance—but this truth is often overlooked in today's society, where we cannot disagree without spiraling into aggression. As a result, I loved seeing a fantastic fictional example of several uncertain people teaching each other rather than hating each other.
I know the basis of my adoration for this book—the characters' problematic tendencies—is also the basis for other people's dislike, and there are many superlatively important arguments being made about the characters' attitude toward certain issues. (Aside from Toni's skewed views on feminism, some reviewers criticize the characters for perpetuating the idea that "genderqueer" is merely a temporary label for those who have not decided on an official gender, not an identity of its own. For more details, I recommend reading this Goodreads reviewer's thoughts.) However, as I discussed above, I disagree with the idea that people or characters must be perfect to be worthwhile. While one could make a valid argument that this book should have done a better job of correcting misconceptions, I still think it is a valuable portrayal of a few people's personal experiences in all their flaws. Above all else, What We Left Behind is a book to be discussed, the characters' issues to be dissected and corrected. I hope that someday soon Talley's sophomore novel will be joined by a slew of other stories portraying other experiences with gender, but for now, I will continue to recommend this book. What We Left Behind increased my understanding of what it is like to question your gender identity, and considerable good would come from allowing others the same experience.