Review: What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

Synopsis: 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 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?

Rating: 4/5

Thoughts: *I received a copy of this book in a goodreads giveaway for an honest review*

Let’s talk about this novel. I was really excited to read this, and after waiting a couple of months after the giveaway ended, I finally received my sturdy hardcover copy. I immediately got to reading it, often pausing during holiday decorating to sneak in a few pages.

Now, is this the best book I’ve ever read? No, not by far. It’s a New Adult (NA) novel that deals with LGBTQ+ characters and their struggle to find their identities. I must say that we have a lot of representation in this novel, not just in terms of sexual and gender orientation, but also in race. Because this novel takes place at college, there are many students who are minorities, including two new friends of Toni.

Now… those are some of the strong points, the characters, the identities, and the minorities. The concept is there, but for me, it wasn’t executed in the best way. I myself am not trans or genderqueer, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the portrayal of the characters, but I found myself getting confused very often. From how the novel explained it, Gender queer is sort of an in between stage between being transgender or cisgender, but from my understanding from outside sources, it’s not just a transition phase of figuring out one’s gender. Some people identify always as gender queer, not totally cis, not totally trans, but finding themselves in the space between. This novel made it seem like something else, and I feel that for people seeking to educate themselves of sexuality and gender might confuse themselves or believe in something that isn’t entirely true. However, I have a feeling that this may have been done in order to show the confusion that the characters, particularly Gretchen, felt while trying to figure everything out with conflicting sources.

As for the story, it’s about two girls going off to different colleges, and the relationship struggles that they face while there. If it sounds like your typical NA college novel, you’re right. We’ve got the trust issues, the new friends, and the self-discovery that comes along with college and long-distance relationships. I found myself liking Toni’s story more, as she dealt more with the self-discovery, while Gretchen dealt with trust issues and new emotions and opinions about their relationship. To be honest, Gretchen and one of her new friends got on my nerves, and toward the end, something very strange happens between them that honestly just confused me greatly.

In the end, I’d recommend this book, but keep in mind that I don’t know if this is an accurate portrayal of LGBTQ+ people. Other reviewers might be able to tell you differently, but in my own opinion, it was a good NA novel that for once didn’t deal with finding a new relationship, but maintaining and figuring out what they left behind.

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