What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

Monday, December 14, 2015

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 begin to wear on their relationship, the couple must decide—have they grown apart for good, or is love enough to keep them together?

I am very excited by the number of YA novels currently being published that centre on LGBT characters. I am even more excited at the quality. I think there's a risk in books for young people of sounding preachy, or of allowing 'issues' to be the focus at the expense of the story, but I've found that occurring less and less in YA as I've gotten older (and I suppose as YA as a genre has developed and the segment of the market it inhabits has expanded). I think it's wonderful that so much more YA represents the diversity and experiences of actual young people, rather than some distorted worldview where everyone looks and acts exactly the same. What We Left Behind is a terrific example of this.

The writing style is simple, conversational and straight-forward, so it's a quick and easy read. It's engaging enough to be a read-in-one-sitting novel. While I can't speak to the truth of Toni's experiences and depiction as a transgender character, this always read as being honest and realistic; I found the characters exploring the complexity of using gendered/non-gendered pronouns for others really interesting, and the dialogue between Toni and friends authentic and engaging. Both protagonists are endearing, though much of the story centres on Toni, who undergoes the biggest change in identity, sometimes at the expense of Gretchen (who is super nice and lots of unpleasant things happen to her that she so doesn't deserve. She's a sweetheart). I love YA romance that focuses on an established relationship, and the difficulty Toni and Gretchen had maintaining their relationship when separated at different schools felt realistic; I very much wanted things to work out for them.

I would definitely recommend this for the older YA reader, especially if you like YA centred around university-aged characters, and all of the dilemmas that go along with that. While it is a novel about a lesbian couple, someone trying to working out their gender identity and centres around a number of transgender characters, it's also about identity and managing the transition from high school into adult life, so it's not just for fans of LGBT YA. It's immensely readable and heartwarming. (Heartwarming in the end, I should say - there's some pretty awful, dig-your-nails-into-your-palm angry stuff before then. Especially because you know transgender people are treated with disrespect in real life, too, which is absolutely unacceptable.)

(Side note: I tend to read much more Australian YA than American YA which I'm aware is probably uncommon - which it shouldn't be, in Australia! Australian YA is the best! - so I was struck by how American everything is. Harvard! New York! Living in dorms! They have dorms in Australian unis, too, but still. This is a distinctly American novel.)

What We Left Behind on the publisher's website
Proudly designed by Mlekoshi playground