Thursday, October 22, 2015

Review: What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

Firstly, thanks to Harlequin Teen Australia for this review copy <3

Date Read: October 7 - 17 2015
Date Released: October 19th 2015
Publisher: Harlequin Teen Australia
Product Page: What We Left Behind on Harlequin Teen Australia
Source: Review copy via publisher
Genre: Contemporary
My Rating:

"From the critically acclaimed author of Lies We Tell Ourselves comes an emotional, empowering story of what happens when love isn't 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, 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 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 started with a prologue of instalove. Alarm bells were going off in my head when I read this. I decided to give WWLB the benefit of the doubt as I progressed through the first chapter because this book deals with very important issues. Transgender/genderqueer books are rare and few, and pretty much non-existent in YA. I’m not at all knowledgeable about this community of people who don’t identify with the sex they were born with. As such I thought by reading WWLB I would have a better understanding of genderqueer people and what they have to face.

What I got instead were two teenage girls going off to college and both wallowing in self-pity. We have Toni who identifies with being genderqueer (somewhat, I’ll get onto this later) and her (his?) high school sweetheart Gretchen who’s all sorts of supportive and an amazing girlfriend. They’re hailed as the perfect couple but there’s trouble in paradise when they go to college in different states and find their own friends. Toni finds the genderqueer community at Harvard and fits right in, while Gretchen just sort of trudges through her college life at NYU.

In reality this isn’t about Toni and Gretchen. It’s really about Toni and the effect her/his selfishness has on those around them. Honestly Toni got worse and worse for me throughout the book. I wanted to shake this girl/guy so hard. They’re struggling to figure out where they fit in on the gender scale and says they’re non-binary (identifying as neither male or female) which is fine by me. But she/he decides to lecture everybody else on this. Toni goes on and on about how they hate gender pronouns (I just went through this whole paragraph editing because I wrote ‘she’) and I swear to god every time I read from their perspective I felt like I was getting a textbook lecture. Yes you’re struggling with your identity Toni, yes everybody is different, but no you are NOT the centre of the world. Toni has this amazing support network of other transgender and genderqueer students as soon as she/he enters Harvard but feels they too need to be lectured. That nobody should be using gender pronouns. This pissed me off because some of those people clearly wanted to identify as a particular gender and Toni was denying them that which they had struggled so much to reach. It was like Toni’s opinion of not fitting in a particular gender applied to everybody but nobody else understood her/him. As a result Toni pushes away anybody who isn’t part of his/her community and assumes such outsiders couldn’t ever possibly understand what he/she is going through. No consideration for other people’s feelings whatsoever. Nope. This selfishness. Went. On. For. The. Whole. Damn. Book.

Poor Gretchen tries to understand what Toni is going through. Gretch is actually the most supportive girlfriend ever. She’s always thinking about what she’s saying so as not to offend Toni, she stops using gender pronouns too. I really liked Gretchen as a person overall. She’s very selfless but at the same time a bit of a doormat. It annoyed me the way she let other people walk over her (especially Toni). However, she does grow as a person and I liked her character development towards the end of the book.

I generally liked the supporting characters, especially Toni’s friends. I liked Derek’s enthusiasm and being able to see Eli’s transition – his struggles and the family aspect. I thought that, of Toni’s friends, Nance was the most realistic. Nance wasn’t afraid to tell Toni that she thought Toni was acting all high and mighty. On Gretchen’s side we got very little. She had one friend and one roommate and I would’ve liked more of this. What I didn’t like about the secondary characters was that anybody who was straight/cis was portrayed as ignorant and/or hateful, even the nicer characters (or they barely appeared in the book). Like what, we’re not all like that. Some of us want to understand (hence why I read this book).

Romance wise I just did not get the feels. I was just annoyed at Toni because Gretchen kept giving and Toni kept taking and not giving back. That is not how relationships work. I have nothing more to say about this because the romance just didn’t work for me.

Plot wise, the story is just the progression through the school year following Toni as they try to find their identity with bits of Gretchen interspersed. I thought there could have been a whole lot more world-building with regards to college life and the difference between Harvard and NYU.

And let’s also add in that as genderqueer/transgender representation goes, this book was centred on a college community within Harvard. All these students are privileged either way. So what, you might think, doesn’t mean they don’t have the same problems as others. But being privileged changes many things. Toni’s friends and himself/herself included were loaded. They could all afford to buy the things they needed/wanted and pay for doctors/treatment. Toni took their family’s money for granted and would just spend and spend their parent’s credit card. Toni had no job, couldn’t technically support himself/herself (most people I know had their own income in college, myself included) and I thought that while they were struggling with gender identity, being affluent meant they were ignorant to a whole lot of other issues. I mean this isn’t even that important/doesn’t really relate to the book but it was another thing that ticked me off.

I felt that What We Left Behind could have been a really good book because the premise is fantastic, addressing a topic that’s not widely talked about in YA. Sadly it just fell short and I couldn’t enjoy it at all.


  1. UGH yeah I keep seeing negative reviews for this. On reflection I'm pretty glad I didn't request it ;) But I seriously hate when books lecture, it annoys me so much :(

    1. I'm actually relieved I'm not the only one that thinks this actually. I went on GR and saw all the not so positive reviews and I was like phew it's not me being an ignorant fool.

  2. Your review is really excellent Jaz, it really does break down all the problems you had with the book and I can see how it definitely wouldn't work for me as well, particularly where the relationship is involved and Toni's selfishness. Of course someone like Gretchen who just gives would be the only person who COULD be involved with Toni. Boo!

    1. Thanks Jeann. I understood that this book was important but just because it deals with important and diverse issues doesn't mean it was actually a good book. I think there needs to be that distinction. Selfish characters piss me off so much and I couldn't handle Toni.

  3. "What I got instead were two teenage girls going off to college and both wallowing in self-pity."

    OH SNAP. You were right about this. I almost gave this up so many times because I was tired of watching a spineless wreck of a girl and a self-centered narcissistic try to make their "instaromance" a thing, even though it was off on the wrong foot from the moment they went to college.

    I loved the background characters (minus Carroll) and would have loved to read their stories, but no, we have to deal with the two worst people in this universe.

    1. I almost gave up on this too! It took me ages to get through this and everyday was a struggle. I actually started another book to read in the mean time and finished that before I could bring myself to read the last 60 pages of this.
      Omg "spineless wreck of a girl and a self-centered narcissistic" sums up Gretchen and Toni perfectly. I couldn't get over how self-centred Toni was. Her spending was also off the charts like wow I know I spend a lot but she was so pampered in many ways she had no clue and still takes it all for granted.
      I really, really needed more of Derek, Eli and Nance. And we barely got any on Gretchen's side.
      Could have done with a lot more secondary character development aye?