Robin Talley's What We Left Behind gives us a close look at the LBGQTIA community in high school, at Harvard, and at NYU. What We Left Behind invites readers into the college haunts of sexually fluid college freshmen and into the minds of Toni and her girl friend Gretchen.
Toni and Gretchen are each exploring their sexuality, when they meet at a dance at the Martha Jefferson Academy for Young Women in Washington D.C. They fall for each other and they fall hard. The two never fight. Brilliant Toni is going to Harvard in the fall and Gretchen will be in the same city while she attends Boston University. Then beautiful Gretchen gets accepted at NYU, where she was wait-listed. She consults her parents but says nothing to Toni before she mails her acceptance letter. The guilt of her decision to return to her home state of New York overwhelms her as the summer wears on, but she remains silent. Even at NYU in the fall she assumes that every time Toni doesn't respond to a text, it is an act of retaliation, and that is intolerable. They love each other, but Gretchen loves her New York City history, too, and she wants to explore her own talents, to be more than Toni's girlfriend.
Toni, meanwhile, moves from lesbian, to genderqueer, to trans, through ties and binders and spiky hair, trying to figure out who she is and how she fits into the world. Some people might expect a Harvard freshman to have no problems answering these questions, but the brighter a person is, the more nuanced her world becomes, and Toni flounders and treads water in a sea of questions rather than striking out for one shore or the other.
What We Left Behind is a brave look at the nature of love and attraction and the plethora of choices available to people who don't fit into mainstream expectations. It's definitely educational, with lots of terminology new to me. I could imagine why the labels were so important to the characters, even though the repetitious indecision bothered me and slowed the story down. It also opened my eyes to a preoccupation I have not experienced, and I was rooting for both Toni and Gretchen. Sexual struggles can be real for anyone at any age.
This book is also about friendship, loyalty, self-discovery, and personal growth as well as the LBGQTIA community. Though it's directed towards an audience of young women, older women can learn from it too. I am living proof of that.
Robin Talley, author of Lies We Tell Ourselves (September 2014) and What We Left Behind (October 2015), grew up in Roanoke, Virginia. A Lambda Literary Fellow, Robin now lives in Washington, D.C., with her wife, plus an antisocial cat and a goofy hound dog. When Robin's not writing, she's often planning communication strategies at organizations fighting for equal rights and social justice. Visit her website.
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