on October 27, 2015
Genres: contemporary, realistic fiction
Pages: 416 pages
Amazon • Indiebound • Barnes & Noble • Goodreads
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 this puzzle. As distance and Toni's shifting gender identity begin to wear on their relationship, the couple must decide—have they grown apart for good, or is love enough to keep them together?
What We Left Behind was one of my most anticipated reads of 2015. Ever since I heard more about Robin Talley’s latest book back at BEA in May, I’d been incredibly excited to get my hands on it. I thought Talley’s debut novel – about an interracial teen couple during the Civil Rights Movement – was beautifully written, even if I had some issues with the way the relationship between the two women played out.
What We Left Behind – about how the relationship between a self-identified lesbian and her genderqueer partner changes once they both make the shift from high school to college – sounded great to me. Books with queer characters! Relationship feels! A protagonist who IDs as genderqueer! I love all of it; bring it on.
But … now that I’ve finished? If there were more novels (young adult and adult alike) that dealt amazingly with non-binary gender identities, I think I’d be less disappointed in What We Left Behind. (I would still be annoyed and bothered, for sure, tho.) And like, here’s the deal: I don’t think the novel does a good job of explaining what it might mean for someone to identify as genderqueer; I wanted it to be more affirming of genderqueer identities specifically but also other identities; and last, but not least, I had some feels about the relationship dynamics (I wanted more permission for both characters to be mad at each other, since holy cow, they do some awful shit).
On how the novel handles genderqueer identity: I’m going to point you in the direction of other reviews by people who ID as genderqueer here since I’m cisgender, and because I agree that some of the novel’s flaws are in characterizing genderqueer identities as transitional ones (i.e., that identifying as genderqueer is what you do when you’re confused about your gender identity, not a legitimate gender identity in and of itself.) Here’s a spoilery example about our protagonist, Tony (and P.S., I’m going to use male pronouns and this name because that’s where Tony is by the end of the book)View Spoiler » Tony ends the novel by deciding that he wants to use male pronouns but isn’t certain about his gender identity – the last line of the novel leaves Tony as he’s thinking, “But not knowing is okay. Actually, the not knowing might be the best part.” « Hide Spoiler And to be clear, I am totally Team Not-Knowing-Is-Fine. It’s fine to not know how you identify, and I get that Tony’s trying to process a lot. I just didn’t really like that the only character we get who identifies as genderqueer – Tony – treats that like it’s how you identify en route to another identity. I don’t think that the novel wants to claim this – it’s a point of view that is espoused by a super transphobic gay friend, for example – but nevertheless it kind of does that anyway.
This wasn’t the only thing that bothered me. I really wanted the novel to be more clear about how important it is to respect other people’s identities. In one of the key scenes in the book, Tony and his friends are misgendered and a friend yells, “It’s not up to you to decide who people are.” 100% on board with this! AND YET. When we’re first introduced to Tony, part of his commitment to challenging non-binary gender includes not using gendered pronouns for anyone, even if it hurts people’s feelings. Later, a friend calls him out on this, reminding him that hey, for some people, gendered pronouns are super important – what if you’ve fought super hard to get called by the right pronouns for you and they’re gendered ones? Tony promises to think more about it, but … doesn’t really.
When he finally decides to use gendered pronouns as a “full-time experiment,” it isn’t because it’s respectful to people who use those pronouns. Nope. And Tony’s realization during this experiment is that it’s much easier to do: “you forget how much simpler life is when you can just talk without thinking about it.” And … no. The reason to feel good about using gendered pronouns is not because it makes life easier; it’s because you’re being asked to use those pronouns by people who identify with them. (And ugh, of course life is easier when you talk without thinking, but this isn’t a thing to aspire to! You may or may not have to work to get someone’s gendered or non-binary gendered pronouns right, but it’s your responsibility to try, regardless of whether it’s easy for you. Language is super important. Use the right words!)
Additionally, there were just other moments in the novel that made me flinch. Gretchen’s new best friend in college, Carroll, is a horrible transphobe, and Gretchen seems uncomfortable about it? But … he never really gets called out on any of the awful stuff he says, and that really bugged me. (Like, I wanted a moment in the narrative where someone was like, “Dude, I know you don’t get this, but you need to educate yourself on these issues and stop using words like ‘tranny’ and stop misgendering Gretchen’s partner since you’re supposedly Gretchen’s best friend.” But it never happens! He’s all, “But I looked at the internet and I was confused,” and hello, there are better internet resources and also good non-internet resources at NYU.) And there’s also some biphobia thrown into the mix, too. View Spoiler » Gretchen sleeps with Carroll when she and Tony are on a break, and when Tony finds out, he’s super offended and hurt and is like, “But you’re a lesbian!” and “how dare you compare your experimenting to my trying to figure out my gender identity!” What the hell, man! And Gretchen calls him out on this, but I really didn’t feel like any of this was engaged with to the extent I wanted it to be. « Hide Spoiler To be fair, I’m pretty sure that the novel doesn’t want to sanction either character’s transphobia or biphobia, but it doesn’t take the space to dismiss their views as thoroughly as it could, and so I felt disappointed.
At this point it should be clear that I wasn’t a huge fan of What We Left Behind. What I think the novel does do well is demonstrate how difficult it can be to think through non-normative identities (as someone who’s identified as lesbian, queer, or bisexual at different points in my life, parts of this book felt really familiar to me). While I understood why Tony and Gretchen are both being selfish and kind of awful to one another – the novel is basically a portrait of a relationship in which both people are struggling with their own shit and don’t have the time/space to engage with each other, which is fine – I wanted them to stop. Go practice good self-care! Don’t be with each other right now! Maybe take some more time apart, you two! (I know they’re characters but I can’t help it. Take my advice, fictional beings!)
I should also say that I hope if people do read this book, they’ll do more research about what it’s like to identify as genderqueer or date someone who’s genderqueer or, you know, discover more about the diversity of gender identities and sexual orientations. I don’t think What We Left Behind does a great job of handling this, but your mileage may vary.
So, have you read this yet? If so, what’d you think?