Monday, October 5, 2015

Book Review: What We Left Behind

What We Left Behind
Author: Robin Talley
Published By:  Harlequin Teen/Harlequin Teen Australia
Publication Date: October 27th/November 1st, 2015
Page Count: 416 pages
Source:  Advanced review copy courtesy of the publisher
Audience: Contemporary/LGBTQIA

For Toni and Gretchen it was love at first sight at the junior prom and they'd been together ever since. But the end of High School brings more challenges then they'd expected. 

Rather than attending Colleges in the same city, they end up several hours apart. Toni joins an activist group and starts to to try on different labels and identities, from not using gendered pronouns, to using gender neutral pronouns, to identifying as a trans male. Gretchen, who has always been known as Toni's girlfriend, struggles to find herself outside of that dynamic, as well as what Toni's changing sense of self means for their relationship. Both Toni and Gretchen are keeping secrets and the emotional distance begins to match the physical. Is love enough when everything you thought you knew about your partner is now under question?

This is the first book I've read with a nonbinary main character, and Toni's journey was an interesting one. It really made me think about the labels that we use not only for others, but also for ourselves. Gretchen's story is also interesting. From her viewpoint we see the implications of being in a relationship where your partner is trying to work out who they are, and not necessarily including you in the discussion.

Toni is not a perfect character. While wanting to avoid labels and being placed in boxes, that is exactly what Toni does to others. I really would have liked a bit more development on this point, particularly with regards to Toni's roommates. 

There's a lot of talk about the need for diversity in literature, particularly for teens, and this book definitely has a cast of diverse characters in terms of ethnicity, gender and sexuality, but some of those still felt very stereotyped to me which is slightly disappointing.  

Ultimately this is a story about leaving high school, starting college and finding out who you are, which is a common theme. The characters in this one just have a few extra elements to sort through.

I enjoyed this book and it really opened my eyes to issues faced by those who don't identify as the gender they were born. The message it left with me was that the only labels that count are the ones we give ourselves.

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?

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