It turns out to be transgender week at bibliobrit! It’s terrific that there are starting to be books for kids of different ages on this important topic.
This is Ms. Talley’s second novel: I very much enjoyed the brutally powerful Lies We Tell Ourselves, and now the absolutely cracking What We Left Behind has even more maturity and sophistication.
Toni and Gretchen meet cute and fall in love at the junior homecoming dance. Fast forward to the first year of college – Toni is at Harvard and Gretchen at NYU. Can they make a long distance relationship work?
This is a really talky novel, entirely driven by the two main characters in their alternating narration and I became thoroughly invested in these two and their relationship. Toni, probably the flashier of the two, spends her first year at Harvard exploring her gender identity. It is a wonderful portrait of a questioning teen – serious, looking for a definitive answer, trying out new labels and new pronouns, and, yes, also slightly irritating. Toni’s group of friends at Harvard are a racially diverse group of, mainly, transgender men. They are juniors and have the certainty and assurance that Toni longs for.
Gretchen initially seems less interesting – she is something of a doormat to Toni, a follower and a listener. At NYU, she becomes close friends with Carroll, a gay young man from rural New Jersey who is out for the first time, and this friendship is something of a celibate mirror of Gretchen’s relationship with Toni. However, as we’re shown in a couple of cleverly placed flashbacks to their high school years, Gretchen’s decision to go to New York instead of Boston, is a crucial part of her development as an individual.
This is also, if only incidentally, a wonderfully drawn portrait of two people’s first experiences of being at college with all the fire hose gush of experiences – academic, personal and social – that brings.
By focusing on these two characters and their growth and development, as well as a fine and diverse range of support characters, Ms Talley has written a magnificent and timely novel that should be in all high school libraries and teen collections.
Reviewed from an ARC.