Review: What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

Review: What We Left Behind by Robin TalleyWhat We Left Behind by Robin Talley
Published by Harlequin Teen on October 27, 2015
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Pages: 416
Format: ARC
Source: Purchased
AmazonThe Book Depository

From the critically acclaimed author of Lies We Tell Ourselves comes an emotional, empowering story of what happens when love may not be 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, theirs is bound to stay rock-solid.

The reality of being apart, though, is very different than they expected. Toni, who identifies as genderqueer, meets a group of transgender upperclassmen and immediately finds a sense of belonging that has always been missing, but Gretchen struggles to remember who she is outside their relationship.

While Toni worries that Gretchen won’t understand Toni’s new world, 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?

With What We Left Behind, I’ve finally finished/DNFed every single book I picked up during BEA week last year. It only took a year. But hey, it’s still an accomplishment. What We Left Behind was one of the books I was most excited to acquire but then I accidentally ended up shuffling it to the bottom of the stack. Then, color me surprised to discover when I went to mark this currently reading on GR and I saw that the reviews were terrible. Well, I really liked this one, but I think it’s important that you go in with the right expectations, so heads up this review WILL HAVE UNTAGGED SPOILERS, because this is one of those cases where I think it might help. Also, I want to discuss things.

Having read this book now, I actually really understand the negative reviews, but I think it’s more a problem with marketing than it is with the book itself. There’s not a huge range of LGBT+ titles available, and What We Left Behind is the first I’ve encountered with a genderqueer protagonist. It’s right there in the blurb: “Toni, who identifies as genderqueer.” Obviously, I was excited to read about a genderqueer protagonist so I could learn more about that, because my knowledge is lacking.

Here’s the first thing that you need to be prepared for when coming to What We Left Behind: Toni does identify as genderqueer, but What We Left Behind isn’t necessarily about being genderqueer. If I had to categorize the LGBT+ experience in this novel, I’d say it’s more one of questioning, though that’s not the label that Toni has chosen for herself at any point in the novel. To be clear, I’m totally happy for Toni to choose her own labels, but, from a marketing perspective, the reader’s told to expect genderqueer, but the novel is actually about Toni trying to figure out which label fits her, and it might not be genderqueer. I mention questioning not to try to force a label onto Toni but because I think that, as a reader, her journey works better if you don’t expect her to know what exactly her gender identity is yet.

Another thing that you need to be prepared for: there’s a lot of really uncomfortable stuff in What We Left Behind. By doing a dual POV with Gretchen and Toni, Talley shows what this search for Toni’s identity is like from both sides of the relationship. Gretchen doesn’t really understand Toni’s search or gender identity, and she definitely thinks and says some less than supportive stuff, though she’s always trying. Her friend, Carroll, however spouts constant transphobic stuff along with other hate speech. He’s not meant to be a likable character in the end, but it really shocked me. I’m not sure if his role really added to the story for me, honestly, but I get what he was meant to do.

I really liked Lies We Tell Ourselves but I didn’t really feel the characterization that much, but I think Talley really does a great job with this dual POV. Gretchen and Toni have very different voices, and they felt real to me. What We Left Behind is the evolution of their relationship as they go off to college. They go from being the perfect high school couple to slowly fracturing in college. One thing I love about What We Left Behind is that things don’t actually fall apart because of Toni’s evolving gender identity, though that does highlight the cracks.

In high school, Gretchen and Toni dated for two years without every fighting. Seriously, they didn’t fight at all. They thought that was a sign of how perfect they were for each other, but the course of the book shows how unhealthy that was for them. It’s not like they never got annoyed at each other; they just repressed that stuff so they wouldn’t fight. Part of why Gretchen doesn’t understand Toni’s gender identity is because Toni never told Gretchen much and Gretchen feared they would fight if she asked stupid questions about it. Their long distance relationship starts out poorly because Gretchen had kept secret the fact that she was going to NYU instead of Boston University because she was afraid to fight with Toni, who had planned on them being in the same city. Couples are going to fight and repressing problems like these two always did made fixable issues irreparable fractures.

Almost all of the cast of What We Left Behind is diverse, either racially or in terms of sexuality/gender identity. White cis het individuals are hard to find, and it’s awesome. Falling in with a group consisting mostly of transgender boys really throws Toni into a search for gender identity. There’s definitely some encouragement for Toni to begin transitioning to male, but Toni’s not sure if that’s actually the right path. In some ways, I see the criticism that it seems as though What We Left Behind is making it seem as if genderqueer is a stop on the way to transgender, but I felt like it was pretty clear that those are not the same thing. Toni’s just not sure yet which one fits better. I was actually pretty anxious that Toni would rush into something before actually making a decision. Toni very much is the kind of person who wants a clear solution to everything, so he (which I use because Toni accepts masculine pronouns as of the end of the book) is constantly trying to hurry to a solution for his own sexuality. It’s very much a journey, and it’s not over at the end of the novel.

Whatever your thoughts on how well Talley pulled off What We Left Behind, I think it’s a really excellent novel for discussions. If you’ve read it, I’d love to talk about it in the comments.

Favorite Quote:

Why is it so hard to understand what’s happening inside my own damn brain?

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

 gif growing apart

2 responses to “Review: What We Left Behind by Robin Talley”

  1. Danielle says:

    This seems like a very interesting novel! I don’t think I have ever picked up an LGBTQ+ novel before, and not because I intentionally avoid them but it just hasn’t happened on it’s own. So I decided by the end of this year I would like to get to at least 2 (sounds like a small number but once school starts up I hardly read at all) just to expose myself to them. This book is definitely going onto my list to look out for 🙂
    Danielle recently posted…Intimidating TBR TagMy Profile

  2. Wren says:

    I have had this book on my to-read list for a while, but I was unsure if I’d actually pick it up because of some of the negative reviews. I guess this review has given me some hope that it’ll be better than I’ve heard!

    Wren @

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