Wednesday, 2 December 2015

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Review: What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

What We Left Behind by Robin TalleyWhat We Left Behind by Robin Talley (proof) - From the critically acclaimed author of Lies We Tell Ourselves comes an emotional, empowering story of what happens when love isn't 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, their relationship will surely thrive.

The reality of being apart, however, is a lot different than they expected. As Toni, who identifies as genderqueer, falls in with a group of transgender upperclassmen and immediately finds a sense of belonging that has always been missing, Gretchen struggles to remember who she is outside their relationship.

While Toni worries that Gretchen, who is not trans, just won't understand what is going on, 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?
From Goodreads.

After loving Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley, I was so excited when I heard about What We Left Behind! However, it was quite a difficult read, and I'm not sure I can say I enjoyed it in the end.

Gretchen and Toni have been the perfect couple for almost two years; so in love, and completely inseparable. So when the time comes to go to college, a rift is caused between them when, the day before, Gretchen reveals she'll actually be attending NYU and not going to college in Boston, like Toni. Toni is mad at Gretchen, Gretchen feels terribly guilty, and having to deal with being further apart than planned is seriously difficult. But at Harvard, Toni, who identifies as genderqueer, signs up to a LGBTQ group, and makes friends with a number of trans people. In this new environment, Toni starts to think more about Toni's gender identity, what it means, what fits, and Gretchen begins to discover just who she is when she's not known as "Toni's girlfriend". Can their love survive the distance and embrace the new people they're becoming?

This book isn't what I thought it was about. When I first heard about it, there wasn't much description yet; it was a LGBTQ love story where one of the narrators is genderqueer. As I said, I loved Lies We  Tell Ourselves, hearing that Talley would again be tackling an LGBTQ story I hadn't read before, I was so excited. I was expecting a nice (though hard) college romance, and to learn more about genderqueer. What We Left Behind is actually a lot more about indentity - specifically Toni's gender identity - than it is about romance. Gretchen and Toni's romance is the backdrop to Toni's story of self-discovery.

Toni identifies as genderqueer, which falls under than trans umbrella; as Toni puts it, Toni knows Toni isn't female, but isn't quite sure that Toni is male, either. The reason I keep repeating Toni's name instead of using male or female pronouns (he/his or she/her) is because Toni doesn't like them being used in relation to Toni. The way I'm writing right now is how Gretchen talks about Toni all the time, and how Toni talks about most people. That is until Toni decices to experiment with other pronouns, such as they/them or the pronouns created to be gender neutral, ze/hir. What We Left Behind is full of Toni's ideas when it comes to gender politics and how there is no gender binary (I.E. the gender binary being male and female, when it's more of a spectrum, as Toni's gender identity shows, where people can fall somewhere between the two). This isn't just because of Toni's own gender identity, but because Toni thinks the English language is full of sexism. There is a wonderful conversation with a transman, Pete, who gets a little annoyed with Toni refusing to use gendered pronouns, pretty much saying that he had to fight hard enough as it is to get people to see him (Pete) as male, it's not so great when Toni refuses to acknowledge his gender by using the gendered pronouns he wants people to use for him. There are a lot of really interesting conversations like this throughout the book.

The focus is mostly on Toni's gender identity, though. Toni is so confused; as I said, Toni knows Toni isn't female, but the more time Toni spends around Toni's new trans friends, the more confused Toni gets. Toni wonders if Toni will be genderqueer Toni's whole life, or if at some point Toni will feel more male and become a transman. But is that what Toni wants? With Toni's annoyance with the English language and labels, Toni also experiments with various labels to describe how Toni feels about Toni's gender identity; as well as genderqueer, Toni tries gender variant, gender non-conforming, there's talk about non-binary, and a few others are tried on and discarded, because nothing really feels right to Toni. Despite not liking labels, Toni is upset about not know what Toni is, and not knowing if Toni will ever stop feeling this way.

Then there's Gretchen. Her girlfriend, Toni, is going through all these changes, but what does that mean for her? She's so confused about what this all means. If Toni becomes a transman, would that make her straight? But she's a lesbian. She loves Toni, but would Toni still be attracted to her if Toni becomes a man? Would she still be attracted to Toni? She doesn't understand and these questions keep flying around her head, but she doesn't ask any of them because she's worried about things coming out wrong and offending Toni. And Toni doesn't talk to Gretchen about these things, partly because Toni is still mad at her, but also because Toni doesn't think Gretchen will understand. And all the while, Gretchen is berrating herself, feeling awful for having these questions because it doesn't really matter, not really, she should just be Toni's supportive girlfriend and do whatever she can to help Toni. But then she'll be involved in conversations were Toni is talking about Toni's gender identity, and there will be decisions Toni's made that come out of left field for Gretchen because Toni never told her. So Gretchen ends up hurt because she doesn't know what's going on in her girlfriend's head, but again, doesn't want to ask.

These two wound me the hell up, I swear. There is zero communication for much of the story, and their relationship is unbelievably unhealthy. Toni ends up being really quite selfish, worrying about themself* and getting annoyed at the idea of talking to Gretchen, because what's the point, she doesn't get it, and Gretchen is bending over backwards to be there for Toni, and ends up being quite obsessed about when she'll hear from Toni next, what's Toni's going to say, because she loves Toni, she needs Toni, she can't do without Toni. It's really uncomfortable to read. Not only that, but they're at college, they're 18, but the way they both act when it comes to their relationship, feels so juvenile! Yes, they have major changes to contend with, but they're grown ups now, and need to stop acting like young teenagers.

As educational as this book is, it's also serious heavy. There is so much information on various gender identities and pronouns, and I do feel enlightened, but I also felt bloody exhausted once I finished it. There are so few books out there on genderqueer people, so this is such a hugely important book, but there is barely any let up. Gretchen's chapters are where you feel like you can breath a little easier, but even she spends a lot of time thinking about Toni and Toni's gender identity. No matter what's happening at any point with Toni, Toni is talking or thinking about Toni's gender identity. But I finished the book not knowing if this story of confusion on Toni's part is how most genderqueer people feel all the time, or if that was just how Toni was dealing with Toni's gender identity. It just felt like too much, all at once. This is my first experience of reading a book about a genderqueer peerson, so I don't know if I'm being insensitive or not - I apologise if I am.

What We Left Behind is a pretty good and important book, and one you will definitely learn from.

Thank you to Mira Ink for the proof.

*Is there a better way of saying this, gender neutrally? "Themselves" seems too plural to me (I.E. more than one "self"), but "themself" just seems wrong.

N.B. Since writing this review, I have read a review on Goodreads from a genderqueer reader who was disappointed with the representation of genderqueer people in this book, so I guess this book doesn't have accurate representation.

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Published: 22nd October 2015
Publisher: Mira Ink
Robin Talley's Website

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