Release Date: 22nd October 2015
Publisher: MIRA Ink
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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 We Left Behind is Robin Talley’s second novel, a follow up to the excellent Lies We Tell Ourselves. I think it’s fair to say that I had very high expectations for this novel so it was doubly disappointing for me when it didn’t meet any of those expectations at all.
What We Left Behind focuses on two main characters – Toni and Gretchen. It is as much a love story between two girls as it is a discussion about gender and identity. Or at least, it tries to be? I didn’t feel like this book was a discussion so much as a lecture and while I appreciate that it tried to branch out into something different, I just don’t think Talley succeeded at writing a story that would pull readers in. Toni’s struggle with being genderqueer and then later on, deciding to become a man was honestly ruined by Toni’s personality. I’ve rarely come across a character I’ve disliked so much. Gretchen was a more interesting character but she also irritated me, mostly because I didn’t like her relationship with Toni and the more the book tried to convince me that they were ~soulmates, the less I liked them as a couple.
Toni was genuinely awful – pretentious, snobby, rude and honestly felt like one of those gross elitists who attend top universities and think it makes them better than everyone else. Unsurprisingly Toni goes to Harvard, and Toni’s experience there only succeeded in convincing me that the only good thing to come out of Harvard was Elle Woods.
I preferred learning about Gretchen but even she grated on me after a little while. She just felt so over the top quirky and I can’t deal with characters like that at all. Also she too had a superiority thing and while it wasn’t as insufferable as Toni’s, it was still beyond annoying.
To top it all off I really just couldn’t get into the love story at all. Any romance storyline that starts with instalove immediately puts me off and it takes a lot to pull me back in. Toni and Gretchen didn’t do that…at all. Toni, because Toni is just that kind of person, often talks down to Gretchen, acting like the more intellectually superior of the pair, and generally behaving like a privileged brat in every interaction with any other human being. Gretchen was overly eager to please Toni and it was so boring to read about. I sat through three seasons of Stefan and Elena and I didn’t that kind of dynamic repeated in any other romance ever, thanks.
Mostly though, this was just not fun to read. Even the initially interesting premise fell through because of the often condescending nature of the protagonists and the narrative itself.
Also, as Amber pointed out in her review, there is a lot of worthy debate about the portrayal of genderqueer people in this book. I’ve not mentioned it in my review because frankly I don’t know much about it at all but if you are interested in this book please do go and read up on genderqueer and trans people. It will improve your understanding of this novel immensely.