I am so happy that my book reviews are going down a storm with you lovely lot, as it means I can now read even more books than before. One book I have read recently and one I am very excited to share with you all is What We Left Behind by Robin Talley.
What We Left Behind by Robin Talley
Publication Date: 22 October 2015
Publisher: Harlequin UK
A sweeping, powerful and incredibly modern young adult love story. What We Left Behind follows teen couple – Gretchen, and Toni, who is starting to come to terms with being transgender. Despite the growing rift caused by distance and Toni’s shifting gender identity, they struggle to stay together during their first year in college.
When I heard about What We Left Behind, my interest was definitely piqued. I haven’t read that many books covering issues such as gender and sexuality, so I was delighted to have the opportunity of reading this book before official publication. Set in America, What We Left Behind deals with heavy issues such as gender and sexuality, as well as the age-old issues of YA such as friendships, relationships and dealing with change.
What We Left Behind follows two teenagers in love, Toni and Gretchen. They are heading off to separate colleges and are trying their best to make their long distance relationship work. If that wasn’t enough to deal with, Toni also finds herself struggling with her gender identity and this inevitably impacts on the relationship with her girlfriend.
The story is told through Toni’s and Gretchen’s alternating perspectives which definitely gives the story more depth as opposed to if it had been narrated solely by Toni. For some reason, I was expecting something rather light heartened. Even though it does have it’s moments of tenderness, it is still at heart a serious novel.
Toni and Gretchen were such strong, well written characters; I couldn’t possibly choose a favourite of the two. I did feel that some of the minor characters (e.g. Toni’s new college friends) were a little flat and didn’t really stand out to me. I didn’t remember them that well and at times some of them merged into others. This isn’t that important to me in the grand scheme of things as to me the story was mainly about Toni and Gretchen.
The story had a good pace; it didn’t feel rushed nor did it feel slow. I liked how there were moments where we saw a glimpse of the happier times between Toni and Gretchen before college, which added a contrast to the difficulties they were now experiencing. I also appreciated how the ending to the story wasn’t predictable, nor was it unhappy just for the sake of being unhappy. It was a realistic and genuine ending.
Gender in particular is a huge theme in the novel as Toni struggles to define herself as either male or female. When coupled with the pressures of college (university to us Brits!), family problems, and a long distance relationship we really feel for Toni in her times of anger, frustration and confusion. I can only imagine how mentally exhausting it would be for someone in Toni’s situation to deal with an issue as complex as gender identity..
However, as readers we also sympathise with Gretchen who felt like she didn’t understand and just wanted to be there for the person she loved. I think a lot of people will have, or have had, the same thoughts as Gretchen when it comes to issues such as gender identity. For example, that if she asks questions she is stupid, that she should just “know” what it all means, that she should just “know” what to do.
I feel that What We Left Behind is a very important book , especially in today’s current climate. It informs you of issues concerning gender, transgender and sexuality but in a way that doesn’t come across as preachy or as being copied and pasted straight from Wikipedia. Above all, the relationship between Toni and Gretchen was sweet, touching and relatable. I can imagine there are couples the world over going through what they did; whether it be enduring a long distance relationship or dealing with issues regarding gender identity.
Whilst it hasn’t become an instant favourite that I must re-read again and again, I really did enjoy What We Left Behind and I am so happy that I got the opportunity to read it. Perhaps if it had been set in the UK it may have become a favourite; the American references went over my head at times!
I would definitely recommend What We Left Behind, especially if you are wanting to be a little more informed about some of the heavy issues covered in the novel. I am keen to read Robin’s other works and I am already trying to resist purchasing one of her novels on Kindle.