What You Left Behind by Jessica Verdi (Sourcebooks Fire, 1 August 2015)
I was really excited about WHAT YOU LEFT BEHIND, because the premise is just so stunningly original and unlike anything I've seen in YA – a teenage dad raising a child on his own! And I was so happy when I finished the book, because WHAT YOU LEFT BEHIND gave me everything I wanted and more.
Ryden's girlfriend, Meg, died six months ago, leaving him a baby named Hope to take care of. Meg had cancer, and when she got pregnant, she decided to keep the baby and stop her chemo treatment. That's why Ryden thinks it's his fault that Meg is dead – because he got her pregnant, and if he hadn't, she would have continued with her treatment and she might have lived. The only person who makes Ryden feel like he can go back to having fun and being his old self again is Joni, a girl that Ryden meets at work – she doesn't know Ryden has a baby. But as Ryden discovers that Meg might have left behind some journals for him to read, he becomes obsessed with finding those notebooks – is it possible for him to move on when he can't stop thinking about the past?
This book was just so amazing. The premise was love at first sight for me, and the book totally delivered. I really connected with Ryden and his grief, his guilt, and all his struggles. He's really good at soccer and he wants to earn a soccer scholarship to go to UCLA, but now that he's got a baby, it's getting difficult to find the time for all his commitments – school, work, soccer, and the baby. I loved that the book showed how hard it was for him and all the different problems that Ryden ran into, and how he slowly managed to figure out what his priorities were as he stumbled towards becoming a better father and a better person in general towards everyone in his life. His growth throughout the book was just amazing to read about.
Ryden himself was raised by a single mother – who had also got pregnant as a teenager. So Ryden's mum is now only 35 and already a grandmother, and I absolutely loved her character. Her quiet strength, the way she's always there for Ryden, having all the difficult but necessary conversations with him, and how she really helps him take care of Hope. There's this whole thread in the book with Ryden wanting to find his father whom he's never met now that he has a child of his own, because he somehow thinks that meeting his father will teach him something about how to be a father himself. This particular plotline was resolved in exactly the way I wanted, but even more perfectly. At the end of the book I just had this giddy rush of relief and happiness because the book got everything so right.
Ryden's past relationship with Meg is quite well developed through flashbacks and through Meg's journal entries, and I love how we get such a clear sense of who Meg was; we get her voice through her journals, and as the story unfolds, we find out so much more about her that even Ryden didn't know before. I found Joni really interesting as well. The way her relationship with Ryden develops is just perfect – it's sweet and hot and complex. She doesn't take any shit from guys like Ryden and she's her own person. I really do love all the female characters in this book. They all make their own choices and forge their own lives. They're strong individuals with agency.
My only complaint is possibly that Joni wasn't bi, but that's hardly a complaint. Ryden initially thinks she's gay, because she has short hair; then he notices signs that she's actually not gay (checking out guys, flirting with Ryden...), and I was like PLEASE LET HER BE BISEXUAL BECAUSE THAT WOULD JUST BE AWESOME. Sadly that didn't happen, and Joni was just straight. Which is fine – it's great that she pointed out that Ryden shouldn't have assumed she was gay just because she has short hair. But I really liked her and thought it would have been completely perfect if she'd been bi, because that would teach Ryden to stop assuming things even more. Also, Joni is just the coolest and I want her on my team. :P
Anyway, this book is awesome. If the idea of a book about a seventeen-year-old guy raising a baby on his own while dealing with the death of his girlfriend intrigues you at all, then don't even hesitate. Pick up this book. This beautiful story about grief and parenthood and figuring out how to be a better person is sure to grab hold of your heart and not let go.