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, their relationship will surely thrive.
The reality of being apart, however, is a lot different than they expected. As Toni, who identifies as genderqueer, falls in with a group of transgender upperclassmen and immediately finds a sense of belonging that has always been missing, Gretchen struggles to remember who she is outside their relationship.
While Toni worries that Gretchen, who is not trans, just won’t understand what is going on, 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?
What We Left Behind is different from other YA books in three major ways. First, it takes place in college–pretty self explanatory, and an interesting change of pace for me, since I am also a college student. Second, it focuses on a romantic relationship between two characters who have already been together for quite some time, who obviously love each other a lot but are going through a difficult period. Again, a pretty different dynamic from a whole lot of contemporary YA, which focuses on the process of getting together. But of course, there’s more to it than that; people change, situations change, relationships change. The book dealing with this gave it a more mature edge that I liked a lot. Third, one of the two protagonists, Toni, has an arc focusing on exploration of gender identity, which, for obvious reasons, is something we need more of in the book world.
To be honest, I don’t know if it handled the issues it wanted to handle as well as it could have; I plan to talk about some of the problems I had later on. The book also didn’t always keep my interest, and I sometimes had trouble keeping track of the secondary characters. Compared to Lies We Tell Ourselves, I actually found this book pretty disappointing. However, I loved the relationship between the two main characters, the way both of them grew throughout the story, and the portrayal of long-distance relationships. More than anything, I hope the ideas discussed in this book will act as a stepping stone for more representation of different gender identities in YA.
One of the reasons I was looking forward to reading the book was the presence of a genderqueer character, and I had very weird and mixed feelings about the direction of Toni’s gender identity arc. I think what the author was trying to get across here was the fluidity of gender, that your conception of yourself can change. Okay, fair enough, that’s true. But when there’s only one genderqueer character in the book, and that character ends up identifying as a trans man at the end of the book, it kind of reinforces what a lot of people believe about those who identify as genderqueer: that it isn’t a valid identity but a sort of switching point from one gender to another. This could have been avoided if the book had had even one genderqueer character who was certain in their identity; as it was, Robin Talley ended up playing into a super harmful stereotype.
I also felt really weird about Toni constantly applying neutral pronouns to everyone even after being asked not to. That’s super inappropriate to do and I don’t think the book succeeded in portraying it as such. At one point, Toni is actually called out on this by a transgender man who points out that he had to fight to have “he” pronouns, and Toni acknowledges the truth in what he said…and continues doing it anyway.
I intensely disliked Gretchen’s friend Carroll; I found him rude and arrogant, and my dislike for him deepened after he made some incredibly gross comments about Toni’s gender identity. Gretchen continued being friends with him because he was nice to her and funny, and made excuses for him because he grew up in a conservative area, and okay, I understand her thought process here, but I still groaned inwardly every time he showed up.
There were a lot of secondary characters, and sometimes it was hard to keep track of who was who. As much as I love characters finding families, I would have appreciated it more if the other characters had more distinct personalities.
Gretchen and Toni are definitely the heart of the story, and they were excellently written, both individually and as a relationship. One of the first things I look for in a book with multiple POVs is whether the POVs sound different and blend together, and in this case Robin Talley succeeded in making both of their voices stand out. I like that Robin Talley allows her characters to be wrong, and make mistakes, and learn and grow. In some books, it feels like just because a main character thinks something, it has to be true. It didn’t feel that way here. Both Gretchen and Toni make mistakes and admit to them.
And I just love the nuanced portrayal of Gretchen and Toni’s relationship. I love the reminder that just because the relationship is good and the people involved love each other doesn’t automatically make everything problem free, and that’s all right. Gretchen and Toni both have to learn who they are without each other, and they have to deal with the fact that other person is changing and they’re changing too. It’s such a human story, and always a hopeful one.
(Also, the prologue, which tells the story of Gretchen and Toni’s first meeting, is possibly the cutest thing I have ever read. I was smiling so hard after I read it.)