This novel begins so beautifully. I adore how Toni met Gretchen at the dance and how they just knew they were going to be together. I loved how it was purely about two people discovering a mutual attraction without the novel being too specific about what gender or sexual orientation they were. It was gorgeous and I couldn’t wait to read more!
However, from the point when Toni and Gretchen leave for University it felt like this novel became less of a journey of discovery for these two characters and became more of a platform to educate the reader on issues surrounding gender identity. Toni prefers to be referred to in a gender neutral way, so no he or she. The problem is that when a novel is written like this it is incredibly jarring to read; to have a person’s name repeated two or three times in a single sentence, and then repeatedly through entire paragraphs means it just doesn’t flow at all well and I found it brought me out of the story too much. I absolutely understand that Talley was putting the reader right into Toni’s place and getting us to see the world through this character’s eyes, it’s about making us see and understand how hard it is to be gender neutral and I commend the attempt, but it prevented me from getting into the book so it was problematic.
Toni very quickly becomes one dimensional. All the thoughts and conversations Toni has throughout the book just felt like like I was being lectured to, it was all very dry and there was very little emotion, which made it hard to see Toni as any more than a platform for awareness of gender identity issues. This really did feel like less of a novel and more of a statement being made. I don’t think we really learnt anything about Toni other than the gender identity struggles, and then the struggles seemed to be explained over and over again without any progression. I know the issues in this book are incredibly important but a novel still needs to maintain a level of entertainment and to evoke feelings in the reader, and the characters still need to be fleshed out otherwise it stops the reader making any kind of connection with the book. For me, it doesn’t matter what a character in a book is experiencing, it doesn’t have to be something I have any experience of but the character has to be three dimensional otherwise it just becomes words on a page; to get really engrossed in a novel the characters have to become real to a reader.
I did find more to connect with in Gretchen due to her character being a little more rounded. We see more of Gretchen relating to her new friends about a range of things, which gives her an added dimension that Toni’s character never really has. The beginning of the book when Toni and Gretchen first meet, and the point when they finally figure out their relationship are about the only times in the novel when there was a lot of emotion and feelings and therefore more depth to Toni’s character, which made Toni, just for that brief time, seem real. I really wish we’d seen much more of this emotional side of Toni throughout the rest of the novel, it would have made the character feel like a person rather than a mouthpiece through which a point could be made.
I can appreciate what the author was trying to do in this novel but for me it just doesn’t achieve what it seems it meant to achieve.
I received a copy of this book from Mira Ink via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.
What We Left Behind is out now and available on Amazon.