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what we left behindWhat: What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

Who: Harlequin Teen Australia

When: November 1st 2015

How: A copy of this novel was provided by Harlequin Teen Australia for review.

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?

2cats2I was beyond excited to read What We Left Behind. I mean, I am up for any LGBTQIA+ novel that happens to present itself to me, but What We Left Behind was the first novel of its kind in the YA genre that was going to be about a genderqueer protagonist. I cannot even tell you how happy that made me because gender diverse novels are even fewer than sexually diverse novels. Just all the pre-emptive YESes to What We Left Behind.

And then I read it.

And I was disappointed.

The main reason for this disappointment is the fact that Tony starts off the book identifying as genderqueer, and not using any pronouns in relation to anyone. And then by the end of the book, he is using male pronouns and comes out to a few people as transgender.

Before I get any further into this, I want to make two things clear. 1. I am cisgender, so my thoughts on this book and its issues are not going to be worth anything like the thoughts of people who identify as genderqueer or trans. 2. I know that gender is fluid, and everyone’s experience is different, and that there probably are people out there who once identified as genderqueer and now identify as transgender.

But What We Left Behind made out that being genderqueer is just a stepping stone to identifying as transgender. It’s referenced like that a few times in the book, for example when Tony’s trans friends are sitting together and say “we’re having a support group meeting for the formerly genderqueer”. Uh, okay. No. Not everyone who identifies as genderqueer is going to identify as transgender in the future. I wasn’t a fan of the erasure of genderqueer as a gender identity in What We Left Behind, and the fact that it is being so heavily promoted as “the first YA book about a genderqueer character” is actually a bit of a lie.

Also: Tony goes through different phases with respect to pronouns. He starts off using none, and then he changes to “their”, and then “ze”, and then “hir” when referencing other people. I wasn’t completely on board with this. I mean, a lot of the book is Tony complaining about pronouns in general and why they are so important to people, and then he goes around assigning pronouns to people even though he knows their preferred pronouns. A lot of people work really hard to be addressed using their preferred pronouns, and the fact that Tony completely disregards this just because he doesn’t like them really annoyed me.

Another thing on pronouns: people referred to Tony with incorrect pronouns a lot, and he only called them out on it once, and then the topic was never really touched on again. Like I said in the previous paragraph: pronouns are important to people. And to be honest I found that the fact that Tony’s queer friends just immediately assumed his pronouns to be pretty unrealistic.

I just wasn’t a huge fan of Tony in general: he was selfish, and he perpetually boxed people in depending on their sexuality and gender identity. His roommates (except one) are pretty horrible people, but if you take pictures of yourself in a bikini that does not mean you’re not a feminist. And if you wear really girly clothes, that does not mean you’re trying to convince people you’re cisgender. Tony just had some pretty shitty thoughts about people sometimes, and I don’t like that it could convey a negative image of queer people to allocishet readers.

Gretchen befriended a guy at her university, and he was pretty darn transphobic. He continually referred to Tony as “she”, and also referenced him as “it” and “shemale”. Not only did this disgust me in the general sense, I also had absolutely no idea how Gretchen could a) not ever call him out on the fact that he was being completely transphobic about Tony, and b) still be friends with him? I mean, sure, give someone a chance in case they made a mistake. But if they are continually being an asshole? No. That’s when you eject them from your life.

There was no real plot line other than Tony being confused about his gender identity, and Gretchen pining over the fact that she should have gone to Boston University because then she and Tony would still be together. That’s pretty much all that happens in the book, to be honest.

I have to say that I loved the fact that there were so many queer characters in this book because it’s awesome. There are too many LGBTQIA+ books out there with maybe a maximum of three queer characters, but What We Left Behind was dominated by them, and it was fabulous.

The writing style was also super addictive, and I found that I devoured this book pretty quickly.

So, there you have it. What We Left Behind was certainly not the book I had been hoping for, and it turns out I’m still waiting for a book about a genderqueer protagonist in the YA genre.

© 2015, Chiara @ Books for a Delicate Eternity. All rights reserved.

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Posted on: October 31, 2015 • By: Chiara

14 Responses to Why I Was Disappointed In What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

  1. Oh dear, all the cake for you. It does sound like this book was a disappointment in some aspects of the diversity, although if Tony was kind of selfish and rude at times, it does explain why he misgenders people based on their pronouns depending on his own mood. Perhaps if you look at it that way, it becomes more natural? Although we DO need more books with genderqueer characters — I have yet to write one myself, but it’d be fantastic.

    • Chiara says:

      Perhaps his selfishness could be the reason why he was so hung up on his own pronouns and yet dismissive of everybody else’s. But still. I couldn’t get on board with him misgendering people. :/

      We definitely do! And you should totally write one :D

  2. I completely agree with your thoughts on this book. I was a disappointed with it too. I felt like there was far too much emphasis on the pronouns, which I recognise is important, but at times it felt very much like info dump, which I can’t get on with…

  3. I agree with everything you said. Toni as a character didn’t work for me either. Like, at all. But I didn’t even bother to get into that in my review because there was too much other stuff I was ranting about…whoops. Hopefully we’ll get the genderqueer book we’d hoped for one day soon.

  4. Romi says:

    I never ended up geting my copy of this, and I’m thinking I’m not too worried about that. It did sound absolutely interesting and awesome and that coverrrrr, but I’m not up for hypocritical protagonists much, and Tony sounds like one. And the weird pronoun issue? Is odd, because it IS so important to people who do and don’t identify as their gender, from my experience. It’s not something that I can imagine would hardly ever be assumed.
    And you’re not a feminist because you take bikini photos? Come on. That’s only perpeptuating a stereotype! Hmm. Don’t think this would’ve been a great read for me, either. xx

    • Chiara says:

      I don’t think you missed out on anything special, sadly :( Yeah, the pronoun issue was really big in this novel in so many ways and on so many levels. Especially because it was so contradicting at times, as well.

      I could not even with that quip about feminism and bikini photos, to be honest.

  5. I’ve seen reviews with this issue a few times now, and even though I have a galley of it and I was initially excited for it, I’m 100% gonna pass now. What an insult to genderqueer people!!

  6. Valerie says:

    Awww. I was super excited for this book, but the more reviews I read for it, the less I am liking it. And WHY TONY. You were going to be such a good character :(

    Guess we’ll both have to wait for another genderqueer book!

  7. Gosh Chiara, you know so much about this topic! I learnt something new about what cisgender actually means. It definitely sounds like Tony was a judgmental prick TBH lol! Great review!

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