Robin Talley’s What We Left Behind follows couple Gretchen and Toni, who met at a dance for their all-girls school and have been in love for the two years since. Toni is genderqueer and has spent the past year avoiding using pronouns. When Gretchen decides to follow her own dreams instead of Toni’s, the couple ends up in a long distance relationship as they embrace the college life in New York (Gretchen) and Boston (Toni). The two are determined to stay together despite the distance, but new groups of friends and changing plans make it more difficult than they anticipated. They never doubt their love for each other, but is that enough to overcome the obstacles facing their relationship?
The premise is interesting, with Toni falling in with a group of transgender friends and having to decide if “genderqueer” is truly the term to use, or if there is more to it. One issue, however, is that Toni is portrayed as caring exclusively about her friends’ and her own gender identities. She had very few friends that were not transgender and expects everyone to respect her decisions, without respecting theirs. With that said, this flaw seems purposeful and Toni does have some growth in the story, thought there is still a way to go.
Gretchen seems far more comfortable in her own skin, though she is the one that claims not to know who she is without Toni. Her story is more about finding herself and realizing she may not be in charge of Toni’s identity, as well. She feels guilty about deciding to follow her own dreams, leaving Toni alone, and lets it swallow her whole. The two are also realizing that perhaps they are not quite as honest with each other as they always believed.
While the ending was a bit of a cliffhanger, I felt satisfied with where the characters ended up. Both characters had some much-needed growth and realizations. There was pain and heartache, but there was also satisfaction and character growth. In the end, it was an adventure of the ups and downs facing a couple facing distance for the first time. Though there were some unrealistic aspects, like just how gender-focused and sexuality-focused all college students seem to be (seriously… how did they pass any classes?), it was a realistic portrayal of a strong couple facing its first major obstacle: distance.
Rating: 3.5 Stars