Friday, December 4, 2015
What We Left Behind by Robin Talley
What We Left Behind by Robin Talley
Toni and Gretchen are a couple like no other. They don’t fight or have conflicts. Everything is perfect. Then things start to change drastically. Toni and Gretchen are in different states for their first year of college. Gretchen and Toni don’t want to be another statistic of couples not working on for long distance. Toni identifies as genderqueer and prefers not to use pronouns to define gender. Gretchen doesn’t really understand Toni’s GQ status, but supports Toni. As Toni begins to find a place in the LGBTQ+ community at Harvard their relationship begins to crumble.
The premise of What We Left Behind seemed like it would’ve been this thought provoking novel that introduced what it meant to identify as genderqueer. I went into this novel hoping to learn something, but I feel like I’ve learned absolutely nothing. I don’t know even know exactly where to start with my thoughts on this book because all I feel is anger. I absolutely DISLIKED this novel and I’m really disappointed by what this novel set out to do and how it went at a different crossroads. There will be spoilers in my review because it’s the only way I can express the reasons I didn’t like this novel.
This novel opens up with Toni at the Homecoming dance. It was a big day for T who has been granted the ability to wear pants to an all-girls’ school. Toni’s story received media coverage that has become front page material. It’s a big day and all eyes are on Toni. Gretchen is the new girl at school who hasn’t officially started going to school yet, but was forced by her parents to attend in hopes of making friends. Toni and Gretchen instantly feel an attraction to one another and the night ends with a kiss.
“If anyone could fix the world’s problems, it just might be this girl with the red hair and the top hat.”
The beginning of Toni and Gretchen’s story is very sweet and I instantly liked this brief glance at the characters in the prologue. Toni and Gretchen both had a very distinct voice and the novel was off to an okay start. Instantly I saw the writing was juvenile. The writing has no solid voice or flow. It’s your simple run-of-the-mill writing that offers nothing to quote or shout from the top of my lungs screaming about the lyricism spread between the pages. As the story progresses, Talley’s writing becomes more problematic. The juvenile writing style being mixed with a few comments interjected throughout the novel contradict everything Talley wants to establish. I supported Talley strongly at first. It’s great that a NA novel is focusing on genderqueer characters and their relationships with those around them, but Toni was the opposite of a genderqueer character. Toni strongly started out with genderqueer views, but wasn’t sure if the views of a GQ were something T also believed in. As the story progresses, it seems as though Toni was never GQ in the first place, but someone who couldn’t find the proper label and needed to find one. That’s the problem with this novel- it’s all about labels. Toni who hates labels with a passion also needs to put people into labels and find what label T also fits in. The whole story is a contradiction of what the story stands for and it baffles me.
Whimsical Writing Scale: 2
Toni and Gretchen’s relationship is also a huge problem for me. I liked how they started and they genuinely seemed like a good couple. They seemed to balance each other out.
“I never imagined that being one half of a whole could make you feel more whole all by yourself.”
By page 28, shit is already hitting the fan when I caught that Toni is under the impression that they will both be in the same city, Boston, for college. Immediately I was like, “The synopsis is misleading. It’s all a lie.” This was starting to bother me because a false synopsis is just as a bad as a spoilery one. On page 36, Gretchen drops a bomb on a Toni the day before they leave for college and tells T that she is going to NYU.
What?!?! How is it okay to keep such a big secret from your significant other? The DAY BEFORE THEY LEAVE FOR COLLEGE and you are just going to spring the fact that you are going to another state. That’s not okay. Toni claims that the relationship with Gretchen is one where their souls are laid out bare to one another.
In fact, once this happened I instantly began to dislike Gretchen. It becomes clear that this couple isn’t perfect and they have their fair share of problems, which I liked seeing, but not in this way.
I’m dedicating a whole section to the evolution of Toni’s gender. At the beginning of the novel, Toni does not use gender pronouns and even Gretchen refers to Toni as T instead of she, which is something I really liked. As Toni starts to make friends and finds a place in the Harvard LGBTQ+ group, a lot of conversations and debates begin. Toni never corrected the group when they started to refer to Toni as he, but Toni eventually tells them that T doesn’t use pronouns. A big debate sparks where Toni immediately learns another friend used to only use they pronouns to refer to people. Toni places Pete in a box on the “trans spectrum” and this novel immediately started to crash and burn for me. Toni begins to worry and overanalyze pronouns. Toni brings up a good point about he and she being unnecessary because they were fabricated by humans, but I find myself not agreeing with Toni’s presentation of thoughts. Toni’s feelings on pronouns felt forced and I couldn’t bring myself to care. Once Gretchen finally goes up to Harvard for a Halloween party a bomb is dropped that Toni doesn’t identify as genderqueer, but gender nonconforming. This book contradicts itself too much. I get that it’s supposed to be about changing and growing apart, but Toni changes ideas and values every second. It seemed like every time a new chapter was introduced Toni had a whole new outlook after a debate. Toni is a wishy-washy person. I’m all for change and growing, but every change Toni made felt forced and unsure. Toni, who originally couldn’t fathom the thought of wearing a bind, wore one on the night of Halloween. After running into T’s drunken roommate Ebony she makes a comment about Toni being a pretty girl and getting rid of her boobs. Toni is immediately offended, which I totally get, but Toni has the problem of blowing everything out of proportion. The world is against Toni and Toni is the victim. Suffice to say it became obnoxious. Toni forgets that people are human and say offensive and sometimes hurtful things. I think that this is Toni’s problem. Toni forgets humanity in the grand scheme of things and only worries about gender and labels. Toni forgets that people are human and not a gender. Toni becomes so obsessed with gender that T no longer seems human. Toni becomes a person who only ever thinks about gender and doesn’t seem to do much else than overanalyze this topic. Eventually Toni begins to use “they as a gender-neutral pronoun” and it becomes painstakingly clear that Toni doesn’t know who to be or stand for. By the next chapter, Toni has begun using ze and hir pronouns, which are made-up pronouns, that are used as non-conforming gender pronouns. I’m incredibly annoyed and unsure of Toni as a character. Toni is becoming unsure of whom Toni is as a person and it is starting to irritate me. I get that Toni needs to find out who Toni is as a person, but it becomes really aggravating when it seems that Toni isn’t a person at all. Toni is someone just hanging onto everyone else hoping to latch onto to the right person and pick up the perfect personality trait. Audrey (Toni’s sister) asks Toni if the people T has become friends with are peer pressuring Toni into becoming more transgendered. Toni immediately gets defensive, but it’s something that I’ve started to wonder because it seems like every debate spurs Toni to become somebody new in the next chapter. In chapter fifteen, the header that identifies who POV changes from Toni to Tony. A huge change and also Tony is now gender variant. Tony also decides to pose a guy for the interview at Oxford, which goes against Toni’s original views of no gender. Tony takes a flight to Washington, D.C. to talk to T’s mother and confesses that Tony identifies as a boy. Tony reveals to his mother (he has also started using gender pronouns at this point),
“When I was a kid I used to lie in bed at night and pray that when I woke up in the morning, I’d be a boy.”
which was a huge reveal that I was not expecting. Tony has been repressing the urge to be a boy and he couldn’t accept it. This is pretty heartbreaking and I feel for Tony, but I just can’t get behind the execution of this novel. Tony’s repression of sexuality is the cataclysm for a big reveal, but why was the constant battle to be something in a certain label so far from the truth? It felt like Talley just wanted there to be a gender for Tony and Tony couldn’t be Tony unless he was a boy. Naturally Tony is freaking out because he isn’t sure if he is a boy or not and he just told his mom he was. I get that Tony is overanalyzing this situation (yet again), but if he didn’t identify as a boy then he wouldn’t have told his mom that. Tony just needs to realize that.
Gretchen identifies as a lesbian and when talking to a friend she makes at college, Carroll, she makes comments that has my mouth flapping about.
“I can’t help it. The word straight makes me shudder.
It’s not like I have a problem with straight people or anything. I’ve always had tons of straight friends. It’s just being straight seems so… obvious. So conventional. It’s never felt like me.”
I get that Gretchen doesn’t identify as straight, but how is saying that being straight is conventional is okay? I don’t get it. This double standard really bothers me because it constantly is brought up in spurts throughout the novel. Gretchen is the more likable character out of the couple, but she isn’t the best and she pisses me off. Gretchen and Toni eventually break up, which is no surprise because it was a matter of when. After being depressed for a while, Carroll forces her to go out and they end up having sex, which results in Carroll loses his virginity. Carroll is pissed and moody about the whole situation. I already hated Carroll because he is crass and says the crudest things, but his treatment towards Gretchen was harsh. I understand Gretchen needing to find solace and as they say sex is the best medicine. She should’ve just found somebody else especially since Carroll is a boy and she is so vocal about being a lesbian. I want to address Gretchen’s roommate Samantha, who in my opinion is an awesome friend. Gretchen never gave Samantha the amount of respect she should have because she was a genuinely good friend who gives good advice.
Character Scale: 1
For a novel about being so pro-equality for genders and nonconforming genders, this novel has its fair share of racist and ignorant comments.
“The only thing you need to know about race and politics is that white people suck.”
The reason why this is offensive is because no matter what race you were to put in the place of the word white (seriously do it with different ethnic groups) and it is still offensive. I don’t support hate to any race even whites because if it seems okay to hate on just one race then it seems okay to younger people to hate on them. This novel while in a college setting is a novel I know younger readers will pick up because they want to learn about this topic or understand themselves if they connect to these characters, but having brief comments like this isn’t okay. Not only are there a few racist comments, but I found myself offended by a comment made by Toni towards two roommates.
“Neither of them has the right to talk about feminism until they stop posting pictures of themselves in bikinis.”
I’m sorry, but isn’t feminism equality for both men and women. If these girls want to post a picture in a bikini they can because it’s their body and if they are confident in it then who cares. Toni’s comment really pissed me off because it’s just another one of those double standards that this book seems to be full of. Something that also really bothered me was this brief section about Harvard not being predominantly white. All these characters that we never got descriptions of are suddenly black and different ethnic races, which are great because diversity, but it felt like Talley just dropped that into say, “Look how diverse this book is. It’s not just featuring white transgenders, but everybody.” I’m all for that, but don’t do it in a way that is just casually mentioned 293 pages in to make a statement.
This novel seems like it would be about not being in labels, but like I mentioned earlier in my review, Toni needs to place people into labels. The problem with these labels is that everything became a stereotype. This novel felt like one big stereotype. Character that is different from everybody else falls in love with perfect girl. Only this is what happens after that and it’s an interesting take, but the characters all need to fit into little boxes. There’s an over flamboyant gay best friend, a Goth roommate, a lesbian with a penchant for cooking, transgendered characters who T immediately needs to figure out if they identify as boy or girl, a burly lesbian who has slept with everybody, and a club that stands for a good cause, but doesn’t focus on it. These are ALL stereotypes. This novel goes against everything it was marketed as.
For me, What We Left Behind didn’t do anything for me informatively. I really wanted to learn something, but I didn’t. This book was just all about the drama, labels, and the most hypocritical character I’ve encountered (Toni/y) and all I can say is read at your own discretion. Don’t expect to be informed or moved, but I recommend considering it if you are interested or affected by the topic. As for me, fuck this book.
Plotastic Scale: 1
Cover Thoughts: The Australian copy is the prettiest.
Love it. I do like the simplicity of the U.S. one, but it’s typical. I like the UK one’s little gender signs. It’s a good representation of the novel.
Have you read What We Left Behind? Are you going to? What were some books that disappointed you this year? Review to come.