Sometimes, a random internet search leads you to some awesome places. One night two weeks ago, I was in the library. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to read, so I did a search for Southern Lesbian fiction. There were no new Rita Mae Brown books (that weren’t fox or cat related) and most of titles the query returned, the library didn’t have. (I know, shocking that a fairly conservation, Northern NJ, small-town library wasn’t overflowing with Southern Lesbian lit, right?) However, they did have one title: “What We Left Behind” by Robin Talley. I recognized the author’s name from another title that came up on the list that I had added to my reading list last year: “Lies We Tell Ourselves”. Unfortunately, the library didn’t have that one. I picked up “What We Left Behind” and read the dust jacket description:
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, theirs is bound to stay rock-solid.
The reality of being apart, though, is very different than they expected. Toni, who identifies as genderqueer, meets a group of transgender upper classmen and immediately finds a sense of belonging that has always been missing, but Gretchen struggles to remember who she is outside their relationship.
Wait, I’m sorry. On a Southern Lesbian fiction search, I wound up with a YA novel with a genderqueer character? JACKPOT! I identify as nonbinary and prefer ze/zir pronouns and this has been a journey for me. It’s hard to find characters in mainstream fiction that have any of the thoughts I have so finding this felt like an amazing present. I immediately checked it out, went home, and started reading.
Talley had me hooked right from the first chapter, where she starts with how Toni and Gretchen met, from Toni’s perspective. The books’ “chapters” (it doesn’t have traditional, numerical chapters) are mostly divided into Toni’s first person POV and Gretchen’s first person POV. Though the story primarily takes place in present day throughout Toni and Gretchen’s freshman year in their respective colleges, it also takes a few dips back in time to important foundation points in their relationship in high school. The first chapter flips back and forth between Toni and Gretchen’s POV of their first meeting.
Toni fell for Gretchen at the Homecoming dance just after winning a major victory at their private, all girls school. Toni identifies as genderqueer at this point in the book, and was threatening to sue the school to be able to wear pants as part of the uniform instead of the mandated skirts. The school has allowed Toni to do this so we meet Toni showing up at Homecoming in “spiffy new grey-and-black-striped pants, a bright blue shirt, shiny black shoes, black-and-white-striped suspenders, and a black top hat.” Gretchen, we learn, is barefoot with blue toenails at the dance, which for a DC private school, was unheard of. Toni swooned. I swooned, too, thinking about Gretchen laughing on the dance floor, barefoot and carefree.
From there, it’s adorable and first love-y. The second chapter, though, is where shit starts to get real. Toni talks about how she and Gretchen are about to leave for college, and how close they’ll be, both being in Boston and all. I had to reread the dust jacket…no, it definitely said Gretchen was going to NYU….ooooooohhh. Gretchen lied to Toni. She originally got into BU and was waitlisted for NYU, but then NYU notified her that they would accept her off the waitlist. And she did it, mailed in the acceptance and the deposit, all without telling Toni. Until the night before they left. Ruh-roh!
Cue the Trouble In Paradise music!
So, that’s not a fun way to go off to college, but they manage to work it out. Kinda. Toni swallows the feels, and they embark on their separate collegiate journeys. Gretchen meets and befriends Carroll, a gay freshman from rural NJ who is looking to lose his V card. Her roommate is a goth chick named Samantha from the South. They don’t really hit it off right away because Gretchen bonds quickly with Carroll and spends all her time with him.
Toni, on the other hand, joins the UBA (Harvard’s Undergradutate BGLTQIA Association) and meets a group of people mostly on the trans spectrum like Toni, but a few years older and further along in their journey. It’s the first time that Toni has found people to talk to about all the questions running through Toni’s mind.
I’m trying to honor Toni’s pronoun choices by not referring to Toni as a she. Throughout the book, though, as Toni questions their identity, Toni’s pronouns change. One thing I really liked about this process was that the author was fairly smooth about bringing me into Toni’s head while this was happening. At various points, Toni tried not to use any gendered language to refer to people, then tries to use gender nuetral terms like “they/them” and “ze/hir”. Gretchen also has adapted to do this to honor Toni and usually winds up calling Toni “Toni” or “T” instead of using gendered language. But thing is, she is afraid to ask questions about what it all means and how it’s all affecting Toni. Mostly, when Toni has talked about these things, Gretchen has just smiled and nodded and was supportive, which is AWESOME for a partner to be, but she also isn’t really sure how to make sense of it all and doesn’t really talk about it much. Can anyone else sense the impending doom on this freshman ldr?
So between Gretchen lying about which school she was going to, and the lack of communication, and striving to never fight and be the “perfect” couple, their relationship derails over the course of the first semester. They had originally promised to see each other every weekend, but that gets pushed back and back as they each adapt to college and their new schedules and friends. Each chapter starts with where we are in the timeline, including the notation of how long they’ve been apart.
Both teens spend a lot of time mooning over each other and also questioning labels. Some reviews I read about this book in the last few days are pretty harsh about how selfish Toni is during this process, but…thing is…I get it. I’m 40 years old and have only in the last few years begun to ask some of these questions that I realized I’d pushed down when I was in my teens. As I’ve said to a friend recently, I don’t think I’m actually transgendered, but I don’t fully indentify as female, either. I don’t really like the gender binary thing. And there’s a lot to think about an unpack in there, once you start looking around at how gendered everything is. I mean, I even found “manly” candles and wet wipes. Because really, those needed some gendered tagging. Anyway, I won’t rant here about gender spectrum; there’s more to my journey, but if you’re curious, check out my blog.
Basically, Toni’s constant questioning and trying to make sense of things was very familiar. Identity isn’t always an easy thing to figure out, especially once you realize it can actually change over time. It was all actually pretty refreshing coming from some of the other trans YA books I’ve read where the characters just know and the meat of the story is every else’s reactions to them and what it’s like to transition. Toni, on the other hand, isn’t sure of anything. This seems to have made them annoying and selfish in some reviewers eyes, but to me, it was nice to find someone really spell out a lot of the questions that can come with this type of personal journey of identity.
From there, there are many differences. I am not a freshman in a big university. I’m not having experiences like drunken hookup sex that ruins a friendship for the first time (thankfully I’ve never had that happen) or contending with the pressure of writing papers and lining up internships while trying to maintain an ldr. And I’ve learned enough about relationships to know that you actually have to TALK about the things that are bothering you, or the questions you have. Gretchen is so afraid of sounding stupid to ask some of the questions she has of Toni and Toni thinks that Gretchen can’t possibly understand or really want to talk it out, so they wind up spending months mostly avoiding the topic with each other.
Toni does manage to get some stuff out, and winds up coming out to her very image-obsessed mother on a whim. That was an interesting scene. It felt pretty forced and rushed, though. I would’ve rathered a longer book to get into some of the fallout and character growth towards the end, but it all wrapped pretty quickly. We go from being with Gretch and Toni throughout their first semester and the last chapter is them having been apart for 8 months and talking to each other for the first time. It feels like they might get back together, but the book ends before that can happen, so if you’re someone who really wants to have that clear happy ending, this might not be for you.
All that being said, it is a cute romance, and it’s entirely refreshing to have gender be a discussion and not just an assumed binary. Oh, and one of the secondary characters also decides to get into an open relationship, so my polyamorous heart was happy with that. Plus, there’s a goodly bit of diversity amongst the secondary characters who are trans, lesbian, gay, bi, Korean, and black. Some support groups for people who care about trans people were mentioned, which is also awesome. I wish there was a little more in the story about being actively genderfluid and not having to pick one or the other but besides that, I thought it was a really sweet and realistic coming of age love story and I’m really glad YA fiction now has this representation. Also, I can’t wait to read more by Robin Talley.