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What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

What We Left Behind (2015)

by Robin Talley

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I was so excited for this book but I have to say that after reading it I'm a little disappointed, especially about how non-binary genders are portrayed. See, by the end of the book, there are no non-binary people. Non-binary genders are portrayed as a stepping stone to a binary one. There are some people who do that, but it's disappointing to see this portrayed as the main story, with no other non-binary characters - only binary trans people. For context, I'm a non-binary person who most of the time, feels closer to agender than female or male. Sometimes I feel like a girl. Rarely I feel like a boy. Gender can be fluid.

Also, I didn't like Tony. He was sort of Problematic. There's one part where he points out that girlie things mean cisgender, which ... uh ... trans boys can wear dresses. Agender people can wear makeup. Trans girls can wear jeans. And I didn't like how he refused to use gendered pronouns for most of the book. It felt disrespectful to the binary trans characters who wanted "he" pronouns.

The characters and story wasn't anything special. I didn't like the Instalove. I mean, I'm thrilled about trans representation but this only represented trans men, and we need more than that.

( )
  jwmchen | Nov 4, 2017 |
Young persons book, teenage lesbian couple who separate to go to college where one follows her inclination that she is transgender, not lesbian. An interesting read, and I learned much about the feelings and preferences of people with these issues. ( )
  JeanetteSkwor | Jul 25, 2016 |
I'm always a sucker for alternating perspectives. I liked that it was about someone who was questioning their gender identity and I liked that there was a girlfriend involved. I didn't like how realistic it was in that there was too much hemming and hawing. The movie version would definitely cut all that out.

After going back and reading some other reviews, I have to say that other readers are being idealistic. You can have realism or you can have political correctness. I doubt they'd be satisfied with anything. The author doesn't represent T as necessarily genderqueer, that is just one of the many labels they are trying on throughout the story. And the snarky comments made by the characters just make it more authentic. Just because she puts in lines that people actually think and/or say doesn't make it a bad representation of any community. Plus, not everyone is completely self-aware and they do have to work to figure things out. Everyone is different! ( )
1 vote heike6 | Feb 12, 2016 |
Originally seen on
Emily Reads Everything

This book made me feel intensely uncomfortable and embarrassed. It made me feel uninformed and insensitive. It made me worried and unsure. None of these are bad things. Sometimes the best thing is to be shaken up a little. This book reminded me that I need to be a better person. I try but sometimes that’s not enough.

If you want to change you have to be willing to be uncomfortable

Gretchen and Toni are in love and couldn’t be happier until the day they head off to college. The plan was they would both go to school in Boston, but Gretchen has changed her mind. Distance is relative. The miles between them grow as Toni begins to explore Toni’s gender identity. At the beginning of the book Toni identifies as genderqueer. However, gender is fluid and in college Toni finally finds a group of people that understands that. College gives Toni the freedom to explore what Toni wants to be. Unfortunately, that makes Gretchen feel like Toni is leaving her behind.

I absolutely loved Gretchen’s point of view. I understand that gender and sexuality are a fluid continuum. However, I also think gender and sexuality are intensely personal and I don’t know how to start conversations about them. I have a close friend who is transitioning and we have never talked about it. I hate the thought that she thinks I don’t care or that I’m not interested. Its just that I don’t know what or how to ask. In this book, Gretchen asks all the uncomfortable questions that I wonder, even if its just in her head.

If orientation is a continuum, where do you fall?

Purple Red Scale of AttractionOriginally seen on Reddit

The character growth in this book is beyond incredible. Both Toni and Gretchen grow and change independently of one another. What makes this love story so interesting is that they are both in college at separate schools in different states, so there isn’t a lot of interaction between them. Somehow they spend the entire novel trying to figure out who they are and what that means in relation to the other. The interaction is so real and honest. Every person who has ever had a long distance relationship will recognize it.

For me the only slight problem I had was Toni’s experimentation with names and pronoun use. Toni is searching to figure out who Toni is and it takes a lot of effort. At first, Toni doesn’t use any pronouns at all. Toni only uses peoples names. From there he tries out male pronouns. Then they try out using they and them. Every time Tony switches pronoun usage, so does the author. It perfectly illustrated Tony, but sometimes it made the book a little hard to follow. Ze changed pronouns quite a bit and every time I felt like I had to rush to catch up. I’m sure this was the point but it was also problematic for me.
  emren | Feb 9, 2016 |
I'm aware that much of what I read is, let's say, comfortable. In particular, I read a lot of crime fiction, especially psychological crime, frequently featuring middle class women doing rather middle class things. (I'm even sure 'rather' is quite a middle class word, now I come to think about it.) Even when they're transplanted to Germany or Norway, my heros and heroines, and even my wrongdoers, tend to be middle class, white, straight and cisgender. So although I was aware of the #weneeddiversebooks campaign, I was only tangentially aware.

And then, I was offered the chance to read Robin Talley's 'What we Left Behind', a book that seems determined to make the diverse everyday and the 'norms' bland. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to expand my own reading a little, as well as an opportunity to revisit modern YA, which I've neglected a bit since taking a break from teaching.
What's it about?

'What we Left Behind' is a love / coming of age story featuring two teens heading off to different universities. They never fight; they're hopelessly in love; and their perfect relationship is the envy of their entire high school. But when one of them moves to Boston and the other to NY (which was not the plan), can they make a long distance relationship work?

It's classic YA stuff, but there's more. As Toni's gender identity shifts, Gretchen wonders where she fits into Toni's world. After all, if her girlfriend becomes a man, is she still a lesbian? And as Toni is enveloped by the welcoming transgender community, does s/he still need Gretchen?

-- What's it like? --

Fascinating, frustrating, totally normal but very controversial - and not at all in the ways you might anticipate.

I liked the way Gretchen and Toni's relationship is presented; you just know that any relationship where the couple "never fight" has some serious issues and it's completely convincing as they muddle along and make mistakes and there's a really valuable lesson embedded in here about not centering your entire existence around one person. (I know, I know, but I can't help reading moral messages into YA fiction.)

Author Robin Talley makes effective use of time, shifting our perspective incrementally by revealing what happened in the period prior to University in a carefully devised sequence that encourages our understanding of Gretchen, Toni and their relationship to evolve. Alternate chapters are narrated by Toni and Gretchen in the first person, which works really well to help readers empathise with them both.

I also found the 'issues' raised in the book interesting. There's a lot of dialogue surrounding pronouns and their use, which consists of fairly basic information and ideas, but is all pertinent, especially to the previously uninformed like me, but more crucially, it's made meaningful by Talley's application of Toni's changing perspective to the text. So, when Toni is speaking, Toni uses pronouns (or not) according to Toni's latest view on them, as does Gretchen. It's interesting to see this in action, helps make Toni's changing attitudes clearer to readers, and encourages you to think about the impact of pronouns in your world (see! Another moral message. YA's full of them.)

So there's much to enjoy. But.

-- What's not to like? --

It's surprising how few straight relationships are featured in the book. Yeah, I know, there's certainly an argument that these are over represented elsewhere, and yet, it does feel slightly odd that everybody T knows is gay, even at high school. (At university T deliberately cultivates friendships ONLY with LGBTQIA people, so the exclusivity makes sense...but surely there were some nice straight people at T's high school that she might have kept in touch with?) Gretchen seems equally determined to befriend only 'queer' people and, perhaps more to the point, the only straight, monogamous, lasting relationship portrayed in the book is just awful.

In fact, all the cis characters are awful, except T's sister, Audrey. Possibly this is why some reviewers have taken seriously what is surely a joke - a moment when T states that they're the only white person in their dorm, but they're LGBTQIA, so that's alright because they're contributing diversity in that way. Similarly, I've seen a fuss made over Gretchen's comment about straight being 'boring' and T proclaiming that T's roommates have no right to comment on feminism until they stop trying to be all hyper girlie girl (I'm paraphrasing here). These girls are 19. Of course they're going to say - and do - daft things sometimes, or even a lot of the time, and we should cut them some slack. They'll grow older and (we hope) wiser. (Gretchen makes this exact point about one of her sillier, ruder friends.)

Besides, there's a bigger issue to consider.

-- Transgender and genderqueer: not the same thing --

I don't claim to know, well, anything, really, about transgender or genderqueer people, hence part of my interest in this book, so I felt it would be remiss of me to write my review without trying to get a feel for what some of the more LGBTQIA aware book reading community felt. In a nutshell, there seems to be a complaint regarding terminology, with a number of readers upset that, in their view, Talley is presenting genderqueer as a phase some folks move through on their path to actually transitioning, i.e. becoming transgender. I can see where the anger and frustration has arisen - if you identify as genderqueer as an actual identity you're unlikely to want to be told that, actually, you're just hesitating to transition, and that you're really transgender but not accepting it well.

But, BUT. That isn't what Talley is saying at all. Sure, one of T's friends summon T over one time to a 'meeting of the formerly genderqueer', but T is very careful not to conflate the two terms and struggles to decide which term T most identifies with. (T talks a lot about terms.) Furthermore, one of the things I liked about the book was the way it captured the easy 'banter'between friends. T and Gretchen belong to a generation who are more likely to tell each other to F-off as a sign of affection than they are to use the L word (though T and Gretchen use that word a lot, with increasing anxiety.)

Finally, one of the ambiguities I find most interesting in this book is T's relationship with T's new transgender peer group. They initially refer to T using male pronouns, and throughout there's a sense that the group as a whole, and Derek in particular, is nudging T in the transgender direction (in the same way that many heterosexual groups might self-reinforce and self-police the sexual norms of their peer groups). There's a particularly telling moment where Derek tells T that he would not have done something T did and T is shocked, thinking that they might not have done that had they known Derek's opinion. So I'm not an authority on LGBTQIA stuff, obviously, but this book feels very exploratory, rather than didactic.

-- Final thoughts --

This is classic contemporary YA fiction which explores identity issues and the politics around 'coming out'. The ending is pleasantly positive after T spending basically the entire book feeling confused and frustrated. Both main characters do daft things but they're completely real characters and you just want to shake them a bit (ok, a lot,) rather than completely disowning them. Definitely worth reading if you enjoy YA featuring romance and coming of age drama.


If you're specifically interested in the LGBT elements then you might also be interested to know that this is Talley's second book; her first, 'Lies we Tell Ourselves', is historical YA which appears to focus on racism and anti-gay sentiments.

Many thanks to the publishers for sending me a copy in return for an honest review. ( )
  brokenangelkisses | Dec 16, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0373211759, Hardcover)

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. 

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?

(retrieved from Amazon Sun, 12 Jul 2015 05:47:39 -0400)

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. The reality of being apart, though, is very different than they expected.… (more)

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