What You Left Behind by Jessica Verdi (eProof) - It’s all Ryden’s fault. If he hadn’t gotten Meg pregnant, she would have never stopped her chemo treatments and would still be alive. Instead, he’s failing fatherhood one dirty diaper at a time. And it’s not like he’s had time to grieve while struggling to care for their infant daughter, start his senior year, and earn the soccer scholarship he needs to go to college.
The one person who makes Ryden feel like his old self is Joni. She’s fun and energetic—and doesn’t know he has a baby. But the more time they spend together, the harder it becomes to keep his two worlds separate. Finding one of Meg’s journals only stirs up old emotions, and Ryden’s convinced Meg left other notebooks for him to find, some message to help his new life make sense. But how is he going to have a future if he can’t let go of the past? From Goodreads.
I loved Jessica Verdi's The Summer I Wasn't Me, so I was really excited to read her next novel, What You Left Behind. A highly emotional novel, with twists I didn't see coming, What You Left Behind is a really beautiful story.
Six months ago, Ryden's girlfriend Meg died during the birth of their daughter Hope. Meg had cancer, and once she found out she was pregnant, she decided to stop treatment and have a child. And now she's dead, and Ryden's left trying to raise a baby in his grief. He loves Hope, but if he could have Meg back, he'd turn back the clock in a heartbeat. Now he's raising a daughter who doesn't seem to like him, struggling to do everything right, and feeling alone. But then he meets Joni at work, who doesn't know about his past, or about Hope. With her, he can be the Ryden he was before Meg came along, before he knew she was ill, before her death and becoming a father. Her friendship is the only thing keeping him going. That, and Meg's journals. One has been found, and Ryden is convinced Meg left it, and others, behind for him, with messages to show him how to be a better father. But what with his frantic journal search, trying to earn a soccer scholarship, raising Hope, work, and keeping the truth about his life from Joni, Ryden's having trouble keeping on top of it all.
I'm including What You Left Behind in Sex and Teen Lit Month II for several reasons. Although there are no sex scenes on the page - they fade to black - the existence of Hope and the effect raising her has on Ryden fits in to the "consequences" of sex side of things that I also want to cover, and with flashbacks and Meg's journal entries, we get to see some of the pregnancy, the conversations had and decisions made.
As I've said already, What You Left Behind is a really emotional read. Ryden blames himself; if he hadn't had sex with Meg, or if he had used a condom, Meg wouldn't haven fallen pregnant, and wouldn't have stopped her treatment. There's a chance she would have survived, and so by his logic, Ryden killed Meg by getting her pregnant. It doesn't matter that she was on the pill and it failed, it's his fault. What's worse is he's really struggling with Hope. She's up all night, and really doesn't seem to like him. He's getting little sleep, and is so disheartened every time he holds Hope and she wriggles and cries, settling only for his mum, at first, and later, Alan, a friend of Meg's. The only bright spark in his life is soccer. If he manages to get a scholarship, he can go to UCLA, become a footballer, and really provide for Hope. It's not a dead-set plan, but it is a plan.
When he meets Joni at work, he gets to put his worries aside for a while. He can stop being Hope's dad, can stop being the guy who killed Meg, and just be Ryden. Joni is a wonderful character. She's funny and bold, and really quite confident, although she has her wobbles, and she accepts Ryden at face value, and likes him. A real friendship forms between the two - or it would be real if it wasn't for Ryden's lies. I really liked the two of them together, though I must admit I felt sorry for Meg - I know she's dead, but it just felt too soon for me. Ryden feels the same at first, but I couldn't shake it. Didn't stop me loving Joni, though.
Meg is a wonderful character. Although she dies before the book starts, with the various journal entries and Ryden's flashbacks, I feel we get to know her pretty well and understand her, and I really felt for her. Meg is completely pro-choice, so her decision to stop her treatment and have Hope is not because she's anti-abortion. There's a really wonderful paragraph where Ryden remembers how strongly Meg felt, in general, about a woman's right to choose, and it was a brilliant little nugget, I think. We get more Ryden than we do Meg, obviously, but I just admired Meg so much. She was so brave to try and bring her daughter to term and risk her life doing so. I understood where Ryden was coming from when he talks about how much he argued with Meg to have a termination, but as someone whose dream it is to be a mother one day, I felt a real connection to Meg and applauded the decision she made. It's not in any way an easy one, but I feel she was so courageous.
There are twists. There are unexpected outcomes. Although in a roundabout way, What You Left Behind ended the way I thought it would, there were various revelations I didn't see coming. Things go wrong, things are discovered, and the way I felt about a fair number of the main and side characters changed or was affected at least. There was something in this book that I was hugely disappointed by, and didn't agree with at all. It's not a criticism of the book, it's just part of the story, choices made by characters, and was actually a brilliant in terms of plot, but just so wrong. It kind of turned everything on it's head for me. The way I viewed this story completely changed. And it's so clever of Verdi to throw that into the mix.
What You Left Behind is a really brilliant novel! It's heart-wrenching and painful, but just so beautiful. I loved watching Ryden with Hope, even when he struggled, even when he was sad, even when Hope didn't seem to want him holding her. I loved their relationship, and how hard Ryden tried. He's not perfect, but his story is one I'll be thinking about for a really long time.
Thank you to Sourcebooks Fire via NetGalley for the eProof.
Published: 4th August 2015
Jessica Verdi's Website