What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

In brief: Toni and Gretchen fell in love in high school and they know their relationship will last through college, even though they’re apart. But Toni begins to question gender and Gretchen is lost without Toni. (Read more here).

The good: I really like stories set in the first semester of college/university. The book also made me realise I don’t know too much about genderqueer people and transitioning.

The not-so-good: Both Toni and Gretchen could be quite irritating at times (bad choices!)

Why I chose it: Thanks to Harlequin Australia for the eARC.

Year: 2015

Pages: 416 (eARC)

Publisher: Harlequin Teen

Setting: USA (mainly NYU and Harvard)

My rating: 7.5 out of 10

I don’t know all that much about the LGBTQIA beyond my experiences with friends, family and the media which is pretty shameful. After reading a lot online about diversity, I decided to educate myself and what better way than through books? What We Left Behind not only has a delightful cover (yes, I’m still shallow in that respect) but follows a young couple from the end of high school through to college. And as we all know, college/university is a place for change, experimentation and to grow into your adult skin.

Toni (short for Antonia, but don’t call her that) meets new girl Gretchen on the dance floor and it’s love at first sight. The pair become inseparable through the last years of school and it’s presumed by everyone that they will be together forever. They’ve already got plans to meet up each weekend in Boston where they’ll be attending different colleges when Gretchen throws the first curveball – she’s been accepted into NYU. It’s a shock to Toni, but the pair are determined to make their long distance relationship work. However, that’s before reality hits. Gretchen loses her way, finding herself alone for the first time in a long time. Toni makes a group of transgender friends and starts to question where she fits – genderqueer, looking to transition or something else?

The story is essentially a coming of age/love story but it’s enchanting. Both Toni and Gretchen make completely idiotic decisions at times, compounded by their loneliness, feeling isolated and problems in their relationship. It’s to be expected, given their age and the world of possibilities when you’re on your own for the first time, but it was still sometimes frustrating. I really wanted to grab either of them and yell, ‘Don’t do it! Think of the consequences!’ Gretchen moped around a lot at first, pining for Toni and missing opportunities for new friends and excitement. Toni appeared to be more mature initially, but I think she was immature in her relationship, having an expectation of perfection. (One of the things she often boasted about was how she and Gretchen never, ever argued – that’s not a sign of a great relationship). It was interesting that neither of them saw the writing on the wall earlier with the cancelled trips to awkward calls but I guess love is blind.

I did really enjoy the friendships the couple made while they were apart. In Gretchen’s case, there was a sense of fun with the people she met, allowing her to take new risks and enjoy being young. Toni’s friends were more intense, being at various stages of transitioning from male to female, but it gave an insight as to what that’s like. Toni’s experimentation with avoiding the use of she/he (how difficult must that have been to write?) and different gender-neutral pronouns was thought provoking. What I didn’t like at times was both Toni and Gretchen’s distain for the straight or girly girls. Toni thinks her roommates are stupid because they straighten their hair, wear makeup and heels. If Toni’s so keen on everyone being able to express themselves how they see fit, why aren’t they included? Gretchen doesn’t do straight because it’s ‘boring’. I really hope they extend their acceptance to everyone as they grow up.

Apart from this, I enjoyed the story. It’s fun and light. The message that it’s okay to be confused and okay to be different resonated through.

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