What We Left Behind: Review

October 21, 2015 2.5 star books, 2015, contemporary, Layla, lgbtq 14 ★★½

What We Left Behind: ReviewWhat We Left Behind by Robin Talley
on October 27, 2015
Genres: contemporary, realistic fiction
Pages: 416 pages
Format: eARC
Source: Publisher
AmazonIndieboundBarnes & NobleGoodreads
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 » 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 » 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?


layla signature teal

14 Responses to “What We Left Behind: Review”

  1. Carina Olsen

    Gorgeous review Layla. <3 But aw, I'm sorry that this one was a bit disappointing :( That's never any fun. Sigh. It do sound interesting, but not for me :) I'm glad you liked it, but so sorry that you couldn't love it. That is just mean, lol. It should have been better :) Thank you for sharing about this book. <3
    Carina Olsen recently posted…Cover Reveal: This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab

    • Layla

      So, this book is about a genderqueer character, and “None of the Above” is actually about a different topic – being intersex – though it’s a good book and I’d recommend it. It’s similar to this in that it discusses members of the LGBTQIA+ community, is all!
      Layla recently posted…What We Left Behind: Review

  2. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    Hmmm … it seems like the inconsistencies in this book would bug me too. I remember reading a book about gay men that fought against the stereotype that they just want sex, but then the main character himself made comments about how he couldn’t find a guy who didn’t want sex right away – it kind of had me scratching my head. This reminds me of that – where the author is sort of breaking down stereotypes with one breath (or, I guess one typed line) and then building them back up with another. It can be frustrating!
    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction recently posted…Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff – Review

    • Layla

      Yeah. I guess, for me, it’s that I would have liked maybe the addition of characters who identified as genderqueer and were supported by the community; that might have balanced out the portrayal of a character who identifies as genderqueer but is ultimately confused about his gender identity. (It also might not work for me still, but that’s one thing I can think of that would have made this different for me. Having your main character ID as genderqueer but also claim that he’s confused about his gender identity makes it seem as if – you know, genderqueer is what you ID as *when* you’re confused, which is 100% not the case.)
      Layla recently posted…What We Left Behind: Review

  3. Nikki

    This is kind of annoying. Genderqueer as a transition stage? Does that mean because I’m bi it means “I just can’t make up my mind”? Nonsense. I don’t think I’ll read this.

    • Layla

      Yeah, I mean, I don’t think that the book wants to claim this, it’s just that it seems to be a problem to me to have the main character ID as genderqueer (although he expresses some discomfort with like … the imprecision of this identity for him, alongside other reasons) but to couple that with the character’s confusion over his gender identity. (So, to be like – I’m don’t know what my gender identity is, so I’m ID’ing as genderqueer.”) And then also to combine that w/ a social circle who seems dismissive of genderqueer identities? Idk.
      Layla recently posted…What We Left Behind: Review

    • Layla

      I know. I was checking NetGalley weekly for this one for MONTHS. So I’m pretty bummed about it. It was highly anticipated for me. :-(

  4. Jess @ Curiouser and Curiouser

    I’m in the middle of this one right now (aiming to have my review up tomorrow) and I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said. Like you I really enjoyed Lies We Tell Ourselves (though I did have a bit of a problem with Linda’s blatant racism) and I was looking forward to this one because there really aren’t enough books out there, YA or otherwise, that deal with people who identify as genderqueer. So far I’m not loving it, though. Like you I’m not too keen on the insinuation that genderqueer is what people identify as when they’re trying to decide whether they’re male or female, which is basically like saying people who are bisexual are just trying to decide whether they’re gay or straight. This is a view a lot of people have, and it’s frustrating.

    I really don’t like Carroll, either. He reminds me of people I’ve met before who think they’re experts because they’ve read one badly written article, and even the odd gay guys I’ve met who think they can get away with saying whatever hurtful thing they like because they’re gay guys. I can’t quite understand why Gretchen gets on so well with him.

    Basically I have very similar feelings to you so far – I’m going to finish this later today and see what I think about the book as a whole. Great review! :)
    Jess @ Curiouser and Curiouser recently posted…From Screen to Page #2

    • Layla

      Yeah, my biggest problem with Lies We Tell Ourselves was that … Linda wasn’t where I wanted her to be by the book’s end. (Specifically, in order to have a relationship with Sarah? Like, it felt to me like Linda still thought that *most* black people weren’t as deserving as Sarah, who’s the exception for her rather than the rule.)

      I don’t know. I mean, I hadn’t thought of this before, but I think in both novels we as readers are supposed to be able to recognize and evaluate the shitty things that characters say and do and recognize that hey, these characters are flawed, and the book is doing something *different* than that (i.e., that in this book, for example, while individual characters might treat being genderqueer as a less valid gender identity – like when they talk about the “formerly genderqueer” – the book isn’t aligned with that. The issue for me is that it’s never clear to me that the book isn’t still perpetuating the idea that being genderqueer is a transitional identity?)

      And yes. Re: being genderqueer, I still kind of feel like the book suggests that being genderqueer is how you identify when you’re not sure (about whether you’re non-binary, or agender, or binary) rather than an identity that you choose because it works for you. I don’t know, I wrote something novel length below, but I might feel differently about the book if there were other characters who identified as genderqueer (it’s harder to read this one as *a* narrative rather than *the* narrative about being genderqueer).

      Carroll is awful! I don’t get why Gretchen is friends with him. (Not that you can’t be friends with people who are awful, but he’s kind of constantly saying nasty things about Tony, and she mostly shrugs it off? It’d be different if there was any indication that Carroll wanted to deepen his understanding of Tony’s gender identity but nope, he googles something once and then continues being awful?) And yes, I mean, it’s at least a reminder that being queer identified doesn’t mean you’re magically not transphobic (or classist, or racist, or sexist, or whatever).

      Looking forward to reading your review of this one! Thanks for commenting.

  5. Pili @ In Love With Handmade

    I really liked Lies We Tell Ourselves and was very much intrigued to read this one, but now I’m wondering about it… I’m trying to educate myself better on gender fluidity and the different ways people would identify themselves, and if you feel like this one isn’t exactly good at discussing that… I might have to skip it for now.

    • Layla

      There is a lot of discussion of different non-binary gender identities, and I mean, some of that might be interesting or useful to you. (My recommendation would be to use that, if you read it, as a starting point for further research! Tumblr and everydayfeminism have some good materials.)

      I can’t speak to how accurate a portrayal Tony’s experience of working through his identity is (not my place), but I’ve read a couple of reviews by folks who *are* able to speak to that and some seem totally down with the book while others are more skeptical of it. My reading of it is that while I don’t think the novel wants us to see being genderqueer as a transitional identity – Tony is uncomfortable with it, because it doesn’t seem to fit his experience – we’re never introduced to characters who ID as genderqueer and *aren’t* still figuring out their gender identity. Tony’s friends are also kind of dismissive of genderqueer identities, and that doesn’t help either, you know? I don’t know if I’m explaining this clearly but basically this: I think I’d be happier with Tony’s narrative if there were other genderqueer characters? Or if the novel gave us more than Tony’s narrative – still confused and unsure about how to identify – and Tony’s friends’ thoughts and feels? I think we’re meant to maybe evaluate these and see them as flawed, but like … people are going to come to this book with various degrees of knowledge about gender and sexuality. I want more sign-posting!

      And I also just wanted some character to stand up and be like, “Hey, y’all, you should respect other people’s identities and not make assumptions about how they identify and/or what that identity means for them.” But that doesn’t happen! Tony’s friends initially assume he’s male-identified! Tony makes weird assumptions about how other people identify! Augh! (And then the whole pronoun thing, which really bothered me, because while I get that Tony doesn’t want to reinforce the gender binary, he doesn’t get to make that call for other people? Like, that made me really unhappy.) And also at one point Tony is like, “Hmm, can genderqueer people take hormones? I thought if you took hormones you were a dude!” And the novel never really clarifies that there are all sorts of different ways for people to be genderqueer – some folks might want hormone therapy, some folks might want top surgery, others might not want either.

      Sorry. Feelings dump over!
      Layla recently posted…What We Left Behind: Review

      • Pili @ In Love With Handmade

        I can understand your issues very well and they’re exactly what’s giving me pause about reading this one.

        I can understand that presenting characters that are transphobic and ignorant about it all is quite realistic and a way of opening eyes to it because maybe it’s easier to see how they’re wrong, but without a positive force somewhere, it ends up being a bit unbalanced…