What We Left Behind arrived on my doorstep, and I couldn’t help but be intrigued. I didn’t have the “traditional” college experience, so I never had to leave anyone behind, necessarily. I came to realize, though, that the characters in Robin Talley’s latest are far from “traditional,” and the “what” may not have necessarily been a person or a relationship.
In What We Left Behind, Toni and Gretchen find each other, and then over time spent at different colleges, find they hardly know each other at all—nor, at times, do they really know who they are individually. Toni, who identifies as genderqueer before leaving for college, begins to think, once arriving at college, that maybe T might not understand everything about who T is. Gretchen has always identified as lesbian, but once in college she finds herself in some confusing situations, not the least of which is her long-distance relationship with Toni. While Gretchen is mostly static to T’s dynamism, both characters seem to reach the end of the book in nearly the same state of limbo in which they began it.
I liked that, after reading, I felt as though I had gained perspective on what it is to be genderqueer. As a cis hetero woman, it’s easy to sometimes forget how difficult it is to find one’s place, especially when one’s place is out of the “ordinary” for some people. Compound that search for one’s true identity with the tumultuous later teen years, and both Gretchen and T had a lot to figure out in the relatively short time period of the book.
Sometimes, though, as T is caught up in the struggle of deciding how to identify, the end result seems that T tends to “preach” at fellow college students about how to go about handling the issue for T and other potentially genderqueer or transgender students. However, Talley does reveal the internal struggle T goes through while trying to parse out exactly how T wants to identify. This preachiness lent itself at times to a nearly textbook tone, which for a novel is not the best. For me, though, it wasn’t entirely a bad thing, because I felt as though I learned so much. I’m not terribly educated about transgender and genderqueer issues, but reading Talley’s novel allowed me a new perspective on the internal struggle at play, and a way to empathize with people who may be going through those struggles of identity.
Along with T’s self-professed confusion about identity (phrased that way so people don’t misunderstand and think I’m calling her confused), Gretchen also struggles with understanding how the person she loves so much is changing, and what that means for her identity as well. As an adult reading the book (published by Harlequin Teen), I wanted to tell both of them (as my mother tells me), “This too shall pass,” and you will come out of it—no matter what “it” is—much the wiser. However, I understand how this book would appeal to younger readers who are coming to terms with identity and finding their place in the world.
Overall, that’s what the story is about: the struggle to find one’s place in a world that is not necessarily friendly, or entirely built for who we may be. This is my first time reading a book of Talley’s, but I can say that I would be happy to read another because of the way in which she handled these sensitive topics.
NB: I teach teenagers, and I am already planning to recommend this book to a couple of them.