What We Left Behind
by Robin Talley
This book was... Well. I don't know where to begin really. I enjoyed it, and I kind of loved it in a way. This review will probably be quite long, so I apologize in advance for my rambling.Summary: 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?
I've been wanting to read more LGBTQ+ books this past year but the problem was, nearly all of the ones I could find either didn't appeal to me beyond that aspect of them...or they were focussed on the Coming Out part of the story. Coming out stories are so, so important, but it's equally important for there to be LGBTQ+ books that go beyond that. Books where that isn't the focus, books where the characters are past that point and are content with who they are -- books that can give teens in similar positions hope that things can and will be okay even if they're struggling right now.
This book was a mix of both. There were characters who were out and proud, characters who were out to some people in their lives but not everyone, and characters who were just figuring things out -- and they were scattered all over the LGBTQ+ spectrum. It really succeeded in showing how complex sexuality and gender identity can be, and that society has a weird tendency to simultaneously oversimplify it and overcomplicate it.
My favourite part of the book was that it makes you realise that it's okay to not have it all figured out. Whether that's relating to your own gender identity or your sexuality, or even just understanding those things in general and how they work for other people who are different to you. It's okay to have questions because that's how we learn and it's okay to be questioning things about yourself. It's okay for it to be a process and for your journey not to mirror how it is for other people. And I love how the book showed that.
I also appreciated the fact that it showed that the LGBTQ+ community isn't perfect and that just being a part of the community doesn't mean you're going to know everything and that you won't ever say the wrong thing or make ignorant or offensive comments about other groups that are different to you. I love that it acknowledged that, and the fact that everyone is different and has their own story -- there's multiple transgender characters in the story, for example, but the labels they use and the pronouns they're comfortable with aren't necessarily going to be the same and we shouldn't project our own comfort zone onto others.
As for just the story itself and the characters... I loved that Toni could be selfish and self-involved and infuriatingly judgemental and said problematic things (like implying girls can't be "girly" and feminist or that posting pictures of themselves in bikinis somehow negates their feminism). I loved that Gretchen was blind to the flaws of their relationship and that she made mistakes and was kind to a fault at times. I loved that they were flawed and their relationship was flawed. Half the time, I couldn't even figure out what Gretchen saw in Toni because it seemed like their relationship was kind of toxic for her, one that she'd lose herself in but not in a good way, and that it seemed to be a pattern for her that she had to get out of.
It probably seems weird for me to love those things that should be negative, but I loved it because it was realistic. My main issue was that I wish we'd gotten to see more of why they were together in the first place -- we get a few flashbacks, but even in those it's hard to see why Gretchen loved Toni so much. That made reading the book feel kind of like when your friend is dating someone who is no good for them and you're just waiting for them to figure that out.
I've seen some reviews criticise the way lines are blurred between transgender and being genderqueer, or how there's not enough clarity between the labels and their meanings, but I was okay with that because it didn't come across like the author was ignorant about them, it was more like she was intentionally writing a character who was trying to figure out which box they fit in to, a character who was still learning and was still ignorant about certain things too. Maybe I'm wrong, but that's just how it came across to me -- I guess we all interpret books in our own way.
And I think that's enough rambling for one review.*
To sum up: I really enjoyed reading the book. I'd rate the book 3.5 stars out of 5 (would have been 4 if I'd felt more invested in their relationship, because while it seemed to be intentionally written as flawed it also felt like we were still meant to be rooting for them in the end).
*This was written at about 5am while sleep deprived, with a headache and a sore throat so if it's an incoherent mess, I apologize. =P