What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

What We Left Behind by Robin TalleyWhat We Left Behind by Robin Talley
Genre: Contemporary
Release Date: October 22, 2015
Publisher: MIRA Ink
Source: Publisher
Add it: Goodreads
Rating: two-stars

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?

Lies We Tell Ourselves was one of my favourite books of the year last year, and when I found out that Talley’s next book would be about a girl who is a lesbian and a character who identifies as genderqueer, I was incredibly excited. Unfortunately, I was more than a little let down by What We Left Behind, and the reason for that lies with the character of Toni.

There are two main characters, Toni and Gretchen, but What We Left Behind focusses mostly on the genderqueer character, Toni. Toni started off okay and all, and I was interested in reading about someone who identifies in such a way, and also about someone who is still wondering which label or labels they want to assign themselves, but by the end Toni made me want to tear my hair out.

Toni was incredibly preachy, and when reading from Toni’s point of view I felt like I was reading an essay. There was a lot of info-dumping and none of it felt particularly natural, as info-dumps rarely do, and on top of that Toni was a self absorbed prat who didn’t deserve Gretchen. I understand/acknowledge/agree that Toni was going through a lot of difficult things relating to gender and identity and sexuality, but those things can’t really be used as an excuse here. Whenever Toni had a chapter (i.e. throughout most of the book) I was subjected to an essay about identity and genderqueer-ness and sexuality. And yes, those things need to be talked about and I’m all for representation, but if I wanted to read about them in a non-fiction format then I could have found all this stuff online.

I did, to begin with, enjoy the discussions that the characters had about identity and pronouns and language, but again, it was all put forward in the wrong way, in my opinion.

I’ve also read a couple of other reviews on the topic of genderqueer representation and they were interesting. You can find one of them here, which talks about how Talley doesn’t do a great job of representing genderqueer people. I don’t feel like I’m educated enough on that particular identity to provide much of a comment, but the review was an interesting read. I would agree that What We Left Behind seems to label genderqueer as a transitional period rather than a real identity or label.

On another note, I really started to dislike Toni when Toni met two girls and said they have no right to talk about feminism or be feminists until they stop wearing bikinis. Like. Mate. You’re completely missing what feminism is about. Do you think we all have to go around in hoodies and jeans to be legit?!

And I suppose I’m going to leave the review here as I don’t have much more to say. I’m disappointed, but I’m open to reading more from Talley in the future.

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