What We Left Behind by Robin Talley (Mira Ink, 22 October 2015)
WHAT WE LEFT BEHIND is one of the truest love stories I've ever read in YA.
Tony and Gretchen met each other in high school and fell in love. They're the perfect couple and they've been together for almost two years when they leave for different universities – Tony to Harvard and Gretchen to NYU. They think they'll survive the long distance, but it's much easier said than done. Tony, who identifies as genderqueer, befriends a group of trans guys at Harvard and feels like this is where he belongs. He slowly figures out more about his gender identity, but he doesn't feel like he can talk to Gretchen about it anymore, as she won't understand him the way his trans guy friends do. Gretchen, on the other hand, is starting to wonder who she is outside of her relationship with Tony. Tony is too busy for Gretchen to visit often, and they begin to drift apart. Can they save their relationship – or more importantly, should they?
NB: Tony is written 'Toni' in the official blurb. When he and Gretchen first meet, Tony is presenting as female and has not yet started identifying as genderqueer, and he and Gretchen were known to everyone as a lesbian couple. However, over the course of the book Tony begins to identify as more on the male end of the spectrum than the female end and decides to adopt he/him pronouns and spell his name with a y instead of an i. Thus I believe it best to call him Tony and use male pronouns for him.
I'm not trans, and while I personally think this book did a pretty good job of exploring the mindset of a character who is still figuring out their complex gender identity, I obviously don't have any experience with this and I can't say with total confidence that this book isn't problematic in any way. One Goodreads reviewer in particular has pointed out some faults that they have found with the book. I really think this is a review that you ought to check out when you're considering whether or not to pick up the book (and the issues raised in the review are definitely valid concerns that you ought to bear in mind when reading the book).
While it's true that Tony is very confused about his gender identity throughout the book, I find the representation of that confusion realistic and compelling to read about. Confusion is certainly something that some trans people go through and it seems important to me that the book shows how Tony finds it very difficult that it seems like he's the only one among his group of trans friends who isn't sure, who has a hard time pinning down his identity and knowing what steps, if any, he wants to take (pronouns, labels, hormones, surgery, etc.) with regards to his gender presentation. His friends all seem like they know exactly what they're doing, and this makes him feel worse about himself for being so confused. I think this is a crucial message of the book: it's okay not to know. It's okay to take time to figure things out. It's okay to feel confused. Not everyone really knows what they're doing even if they might seem like they do. Plus, Tony's confused but that doesn't mean he makes no progress at all during the book. I think he makes quite a bit of progress and learns a lot.
I also think that the reader is meant to see Tony as kind of a dick. Well, I don't know about other readers, but I did. I find him pretty unlikeable and I spent most of the book shouting at him. At the beginning of the book he doesn't like using gendered pronouns at all, for anybody. A trans person explains why this is hurtful for the many people who do identify as a certain gender and want to have that affirmed by gendered pronouns. Tony seems to think about this for a brief moment, but then he just goes back to avoiding gendered pronouns completely. I think this is meant to illustrate how self-centred Tony is, because yes, the whole story is trying to show that. Tony is self-centred and he spends way too much time thinking only of himself and nobody else. Eventually, he does go back to using gendered pronouns for people who want them. And there's certainly a variety of trans characters in the book to represent a range of experiences so that Tony isn't the only trans voice in the story. (Some of these trans characters are POC as well, which I appreciated.)
It's understandable that Tony is kind of a dick; I could relate to his stress from all the stimuli of his first semester at Harvard, juggling his heavy workload and too many extracurriculars and hanging out with friends and being perpetually ill and not ever sleeping enough. All this while trying to figure out his gender identity. It's hard for anyone this stressed to not be a dick sometimes. I did really enjoy reading about the Harvard experience; I don't know how authentic it is with regards to Harvard specifically but it certainly seems like a familiar tale to me as an Oxford student, so that was fun. Talley really managed to convey how hectic Tony's life was as he was constantly running around campus and being late to things and dealing with stupid roommates and writing papers.
Yet that doesn't excuse Tony's selfishness and his possessiveness and how he seems to see his girlfriend as more of a prop than a real human being with her own life sometimes, as a perfect woman for him to show off and to comfort him when he needs it, someone who'll always be there for him and who'll always try to understand him even though he's not so willing to always be there for her and to understand her. He's also incredibly rash and even though he overthinks constantly, he also doesn't seem to nearly think enough sometimes about what he's doing. He's more privileged than he realises, I think. I don't like him very much a lot of the time, but I do like reading about him a lot.
Gretchen's life in NYU was interesting too, and I liked her more than Tony, although I was frustrated by a lot of the things she did as well; she's much less assertive than she should be but she definitely grows over the course of the book. I loved the development of her friendship with Carroll, a gay boy who is pretty much her only friend at NYU for a while – and she's his only friend too. They're really sweet friends to begin with but then it takes a really bold turn which I loved. Talley really makes us think about our relationships, whether romantic or platonic, with other people and how we should conduct these relationships, and what's good for us and what's not.
I rooted for Gretchen more and more as the book went on, because I found myself identifying with her much more – being the one in the relationship who always seems to have to bury their own emotions in order to support the other person and losing their sense of self in the relationship because of this. The ending before the epilogue almost had me cheering, because Gretchen finally realised what she had to do. It was powerful and beautiful and real, and I am glad to see something like this in YA.
I found the experience of reading WHAT WE LEFT BEHIND incredibly satisfying, because it was everything I wanted when I first heard about this book: the trajectory of a relationship from the end of high school to the beginning of college, the highs and the lows, the struggle with long distance, the characters realising that perfection isn't real, that there has to be more to their lives than this relationship, that love isn't always enough. The culmination of all of this unfolded exactly as it should, and I adored every bittersweet moment of it.
The result is a funny, honest, and moving portrayal of teenage love and of the human struggle to find identity and belonging. Talley stuns and enthrals with her depiction of Tony and Gretchen's complicated relationship, and I can't wait to read whatever she has to offer next.