What We Left Behind by Robin Talley | Book Review + Tour

Recently, like six months or so ago, I read Robin Talley’s debut, Lies We Tell Ourselves about two girls who fall in love during the Civil Rights Era, one white and one black. I loved it and so, was beyond excited to have the chance to read What We Left Behind, her sophomore novel. Overall, I like what I read, despite having some strong feelings about certain characters and their actions and treatment of other certain characters.

What We Left Behind by Robin Talley is a book that I think could qualify as new adult as well as young adult – as the book is about the transition from high school to college and then spends the majority of the time in the college setting but with some flashbacks to high school. The book opens with characters Toni and Gretchen at a dance. Toni has gone to the dance with one of her good friends. She spots Gretchen and immediately has a thing for her — Gretchen is this new girl from Brooklyn, about to attend Toni’s posh all girls school. Somehow, the two come together and become this power couple. Unfortunately, the clock begins ticking as Gretchen confesses to Toni that she picked NYU instead of Boston University so she will not be in Boston with Toni as Toni attends Harvard. This is the story of the two characters growing apart as they attend different colleges in different geological locations.

If you saw my goodreads updates, chances are you know that I am far and away 100% team Gretchen. You see, the book alternates between Gretchen’s first person point of view and Toni’s first person point of view. Gretchen is just so likable. She’s kind. She’s open to making friends. She does not immediately make snap judgments about everyone she meets. Also, she’s a New Yorker. I just really liked her. I liked how she quickly made friends with this guy named Carroll, even though, come to find out he is sort of a douche. I liked that she was so devoted to Toni, even when Toni was definitely self-centered. I also loved Gretchen’s character arc, how she mainly saw herself as half of a set, instead of a full person, but then she grows and learns that she is, indeed, a full person. For a character, I thought that Gretchen was very well written.

Now, as for Toni. Toni is kind of a dick. I know, I know you guys do not hate me. Okay, so here is why I think that Toni is a dick. When Toni is figuring everything out, Toni does not let Gretchen in. Instead, Toni ignores Gretchen and acts in a self centered way. Also, leaves Gretchen dangling. Like, just end the relationship instead of treating Gretchen like shit. I was not a fan. I mean, okay, I will admit I know nothing of what it is like to be genderqueer. I am cis-het, so on a privilege level, I experience a whole heck of a lot of privilege – not to mention being white, ablebodied, thin, and relatively attractive. My life is very easy compared to Toni’s (except that Toni is from a megarich family who at one point tries to punish Toni by cutting off her credit card, but then LOL, no real consequences, so Toni accepts the credit card while also making Toni’s family accept Toni). I kind of wonder what Toni’s experience would be if Toni was a person of color or if Toni was poor. Probably a whole lot more complicated and painful. I don’t know y’all, I felt for her difficulty in working through her feelings on gender and sexuality, I just didn’t think that gave Toni carte blanche to be selfish and mean.

So, after reading What We Left Behind by Robin Talley, I will admit that I now know what genderqueer means, kind of, and empathize with gender fluidity. I will admit, some of the concept still confuses me. However, I can always research and educate myself more. I do think the politics of gender and sexuality is interesting – I mean, there is even the question of is Gretchen still gay if she is with Toni when Toni transitions to Tony. That is an element I never even thought of. So, kudos to Talley for making me really think, even when this book frustrated me.

Talley’s What We Left Behind is immensely readable. It is written in first person format, with alternating points of views between Gretchen and Toni. In addition, the timeline occasionally jumps back to earlier moments in their relationship. The story puts gender identity in an easy to understand context, which I like because sometimes it helps me to be empathetic when things are explained on a basic level to me. I really enjoyed my time reading this book, even when yes, I was irritated by parts of it — but alas, I am human and bound to have emotional reactions to various situations.

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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?

Robin Talley Author Picture

I grew up in Roanoke, Virginia, and escaped to Washington, D.C., at the first opportunity. I now live with my wife, our antisocial cat, and our goofy hound dog on Capitol Hill and work for a progressive nonprofit organization. I spend my nights and weekends writing young adult fiction about queer characters, reading books, and having in-depth conversations with friends and family about things like whether Jasmine’s character motivation was sufficiently established in Aladdin.

My first novel, Lies We Tell Ourselves, was released in September 2014 by Harlequin Teen. It’s set in 1959 Virginia, and it’s about a black girl who’s one of the first to integrate an all-white high school, and the white girl with whom she ultimately falls in love. My next book, What We LeftBehind, follows a high school couple — Gretchen, who identifies as a lesbian, and Toni, who identifies as genderqueer — whose relationship is tested when they’re separated for their first year of college. It’s coming out in November 2015.


Week 1:

Week 2:
3 Finished Copies of WHAT WE LEFT BEHIND – US Only

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April is in her 30s and created Good Books And Good Wine. She works for a non-profit. April always has a book on hand. In her free time she can be found binge watching The Office with her husband and toddler, spending way too much time on Pinterest or exploring her neighborhood.

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About April (Books&Wine)

April is in her 30s and created Good Books And Good Wine. She works for a non-profit. April always has a book on hand. In her free time she can be found binge watching The Office with her husband and toddler, spending way too much time on Pinterest or exploring her neighborhood.


  1. This has been on my radar for a minute. I’m a sucker for LGBT stories, so I knew that I had to read it. Glad that I’ve come across another awesome review!

  2. I really loved her first book.

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