Book Review: What We Left Behind

Posted November 5, 2015 by Lyn Kaye in book review, Lyn / 2 Comments

Book Review: What We Left BehindWhat We Left Behind by Robin Talley
Published by Harlequin Teen on October 27th 2015
Genres: contemporary, Fiction, glbtq, romance, young adult
Pages: 416
Format: eARC
Source: Publisher
Buy on Amazon

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

After reading her debut novel Lies We Tell Ourselves, Talley made my list of autobuy authors. This new author came across as someone whom kept her integrity intact while telling her story, not matter the intensity of the situation. One of my favorite book memories came from meeting her at BEA in 2014. She stated that while she was writing Lies We Tell Ourselves, she confessed that at times, her hands were shaking because of the severity of the context of the novel. I was completely inspired by her words and her quote.  How great was this to discover that there was a champion of underrepresented teens in YA? That the story would have created such a backlash during the setting that it was honestly frightening to write about it, but still, persevering onward?

Oh, I loved that book.

Sadly, I did not love this new one.

I’m not really sure if maybe I just missed the point or what, but this book was more of a chore to read than a great discussion on the topic of gender identity.

Border Leaf

The author doesn’t veer away from bold, even in her sophomore novel. The two characters are about as unlikable as two self-serving, codependent partners can go. Toni is completely self-centered, self-serving, and judgmental. Gretchen is spineless, completely dependent on others, and superficially cares about Toni’s struggles with her gender and sexual identity.  Due to the recent movement towards a variety of character traits, the author was brave enough to make her characters unlikable.

I usually can root for unlikable characters. But it also drags you down, and focusing the entire book around a dysfunctional couple who hardly could hold their own undermined the overall message of the book.

There is no denying that Toni is a bit of an ass. Toni’s entire self-centered attitude wore pretty thin. Toni avoids pronouns, but then completely flops back and forth, while trying to hold people to what Toni wanted RIGHT NOW. Also, while Toni was exploring sexual identities, I thought it was in pretty poor taste not to use “questioning” or “undecided” while discovering identities. Instead Toni just uses “genderqueer” as a place holder instead of a legitimate identity. I’m pretty sure that genderqueer is not just a fluent term. There are terms and identities as placeholders, so I found it disrespectful.

However, this doesn’t mean that I don’t understand Toni’s plight. I often struggled with the correct terminology for my own sexuality as I entered the college years, and my late 20s. I identify as asexual, with tendencies of attraction strongly towards men. I always found guys attractive, but I never wanted to be with anyone. But I brushed up on asexual lifestyle and definitions, and I found that other people who are asexual still find people attractive and even have romantic partners, but that sex isn’t a huge motivator for finding a partner. So questioning your own sexuality and falling in a grey zone, all the while trying to grow is a real struggle. However, Toni had no other qualities outside of the constant sexuality identification and debates. Well, if you don’t count trying to show off her hot girlfriend and becoming disappointed when she doesn’t wear sexier clothing all of the sudden. Under all of that, there was no substance to Toni. I had no idea what other qualities or hobbies that Toni enjoyed, other than shaming others and constantly picking a fight over gender and sexuality. I didn’t see that as fair representation of someone who only identified themselves based off of their sexual label.

While some of the other bloggers found Gretchen more likable, I really couldn’t stand her, either. She was completely needy and spineless, and while Toni was often dismissive towards her, Gretchen was much more sneaky about her own neglect. Gretchen befriends one of the most horrible people in the YA universe, a gay man named Carroll. From the start, there were red flags about the poison and malice in this character. He used “bat-crazy”, “tranny,” “dyke”, “feminazi,” and other horrible verbiage that Gretchen never called out, because, hey, then this person who’s be her friend anymore, even though a majority of the language was describing her own significant other. Carroll insults Gretchen’s goth roommate without even meeting her – he just jumps to conclusions. And it turns out Angela was a pretty nice person. Then Carroll and Gretchen go to an Indian resteraunt where he used the accent from Apu, the Indian character from the Simpsons, the entire time. So, right there, a phobic of any sexuality outside of his own, hateful, judgemental, and then, the beautiful cherry on the top, racist. And Gretchen never said one. Damn. Word. About. It.

Yeah, Toni was really heartless by stringing Gretchen along, but Gretchen, in return, had zero respect for Toni. These two walking time bombs were completely dependent on one another, all the while bragging that they were the ultimate couple that nothing would break apart. Freaking laughable.

So why isn’t this book rated with the most bottom of stars? There were secondary characters that I loved. Derrick was wonderful, and then there was a transgender Asian teen, two transgender people with their own struggles with their identities and their families. There was one person who was starting testosterone treatment. Those people, the background characters, made for a much better story.

Also, I actually enjoyed the question of pronouns and alternatives to the binary forms, such as zee, they and no-pronoun use. However, if someone doesn’t use pronouns, is it disrespectful for those who fought to be called by the correct pronoun? Which side take presidence.


Not the strongest Talley novel. The sophomore book was a mess compared to the first book, which dealt with some pretty heavy issues outside of sexuality.

Lyn Sig Plant

2 responses to “Book Review: What We Left Behind

    • Hey April! Toni was such a mess of a character. I feel kinda bad for trans or questioning kids to read this and be petrified that this is what they might seem like, but on the other hand, the world is filled with different people, and those with overbearing personalities or unlikable traits should also be represented.

      But still, Toni was an ass.
      Lyn Kaye recently posted…Book Review: Map to the StarsMy Profile

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