13 November 2015

What We Left Behind

For Gretchen and Toni (also known as T), it was love at first sight. The only gay couple in high school, they were popular and happy, absolutely devoted to each other.

They carefully plan for the inevitable separation college will bring, but with Toni at Harvard and Gretchen at a college in Boston, they knew they won’t be very far apart.

Except Gretchen accepts a waiting list offer for NYC when she hasn’t even told T she applied. The first crack in their perfect relationship appears just as they separate for the first time.

Although Gretchen instigates the change, she has the greatest difficulty coping with her new circumstances. T, who identifies as genderqueer, finds immediate friendship with a group of older transgender students and slowly develops a sense of belonging. She gradually detaches herself from Gretchen, finding excuses not to meet up, as she becomes less sure of her identity and consequently, their relationship.

As T is finding her way, Gretchen becomes more disorientated. What does it mean if your girlfriend is a guy?” … “Do you still get to tell people you’re a lesbian?”  Gretchen struggles to accept the changes in Toni and their relationship. Her confusion leads to hasty decisions.

T and Gretchen are both powerful personas, taking it in turn to drive the narrative. I strongly disliked one and I really liked the other but I cared about both their stories. I found T selfish and self-righteous but I felt for her struggle to find herself and her growing awareness of what this meant for her and Gretchen. Gretchen irritated me with her dependence on others but I empathised with her need for love and support, and her growth into a stronger, more singular person.

I believe What We Left Behind will read very differently for different people and I can only speak from my own experience which I would frankly describe as narrow in terms LGBT issues. So for me personally, this was a book that packed a wallop. It felt honest and real. My eyes were opened to sexual and gender identification issues I’d never thought about.

I finished the book realising I need to read more widely. I’m going to start with Robin Talley’s earlier novel, Lies We Tell Ourselves, about an interracial lesbian love affair set against a background of school desegregation. Already nominated for the 2016 CILIP Carnegie Medal.

What We Left Behind is a must-have title for any YA diversity bookshelf. One that entertains and elucidates, whatever direction you’re reading from.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Sandy Fussell

Title:  What We Left Behind
Author: Robin Talley
Publisher:  Harlequin Teen
Publication Date: Nov, 2015
RRP: $17.99
Format: Paperback
Type: Young Adult Fiction

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